Charters & Choice

Andy delivered a shortened version of the following comments at a PPI launch event for Hill & Jochim’s new book, A Democratic Constitution for Public Education.

Thank you for having me here. I’m thrilled to talk about this great new book, which, incidentally, all of you should go out and buy immediately. I’m a big fan of Ashley’s work at CRPE, and Abby played a crucial role in advancing D.C.’s system of schools during her time as deputy mayor.

Paul’s and David’s contributions over more than two decades have hugely influenced my thinking. I’m honored to be on this panel with them.

There’s so much to like about this book, but I only have ten minutes. So for that reason, and because I’m generally a malcontent, I’m going to focus mostly on the questions and half-concerns I have. But please don’t infer anything other than this: I think Paul and Ashley’s book is terrific.

I’ll focus on three points.

First, the book does an excellent job helping the reader understand the district’s four categories of activities, which need to be disaggregated, repackaged, and reassigned as the district loses its place as the monopoly school provider.

Second, over the last twenty years, American cities have taken two different paths to systemic reform. This book’s recommendations land differently for cities in the different categories.

Third, unlike most books, Paul and Ashley’s could and should have an immediate positive influence in a number of cities.

The book helps us see that when the...

I didn’t see common enrollment systems coming.

When I started writing The Urban School System of the Future in 2009, I didn’t foresee the extent of the complications associated with parental choice in cities with expansive networks of accessible schools. At that point, the vast majority of city kids were still assigned to schools, and the conventional wisdom was that this would be the case for years to come.

My, how things have changed.

New Orleans is now a virtually all-charter system. Detroit and D.C. have about half of their kids in charters; in Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Kansas City, and Cleveland it’s more than 30 percent.

This growth is great. Kids in urban charters learn more in math and reading, and the benefits are being realized most by disadvantaged students. It’s forcing city leaders to rethink the operations, oversight, and governance of public schools (see Camden, Memphis, and Detroit).

But—as explained in a primer by CRPE—if cities simply add more choice schools in the absence of changes to the enrollment process, parents can struggle to find information on schools, be forced to fill out widely varying school applications, and then receive a staggered barrage of acceptance and rejection notices.

Common enrollment systems can help solve this.

They use a single application that allows families to rank their preferences, then match students with schools using an algorithm that takes into account student priorities and school characteristics.

A number of cities are headed...

Discussion of charter schools is everywhere in the Ohio news. Everyone has an angle, including a few unexpected ones:

  • The Ohio Federation of Teachers is actively trying to unionize a number of charters around the state. They are having some success, like at Franklinton Preparatory Academy in Columbus. But don’t misunderstand the effort. “Although we believe that all teachers should have the right to organize,” clarifies OFT President Melissa Cropper in the Akron Beacon-Journal, “we don’t feel right organizing teachers in a school we are trying to shut down.”
  • The Ohio Newspaper Association is using charter schools as a springboard to push its open-records “sunshine disinfectant” agenda anew.
  • Journalists in Columbus and Toledo are questioning the appropriate amount for a charter school to spend on advertising. The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), a statewide online charter, spends somewhere around 2 percent of its budget (over $2 million) on advertising to recruit students.
  • State Auditor Dave Yost seems to find the in-depth charter school debate a useful one for focusing attention on the challenges of public/private hybrid entities—a particular bane for auditors, to be sure—of which charters are just one example.
  • In Akron City Schools, the loss of students (and money) to online charter schools has hit so hard that they have decided to start up a new e-school program of their own, effective immediately. Its stated intention: bringing into the district elementary students who are enrolled in charters or homeschooled and retaining
  • ...

NOTE: Below is the text of a press release issued by Fordham today.

The Ohio Department of Education has awarded the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation’s sponsorship operation a rating of “Exemplary,” the state’s highest mark, for our work sponsoring charter schools.

On a zero-to-100 scale, our scores are as follows:

  • Quality Practices: 97.4
  • Student Academic Outcomes: 100
  • Compliance: 100
  • Overall Score: 99.1

“This recognition would not be possible without the hard work of the schools with whom we work,” said Kathryn Mullen Upton, Vice President for Sponsorship and Dayton Initiatives “We look forward to continuing to improve our efforts to positively impact outcomes for the children in the schools that we serve.”

The Department evaluates sponsors in three critical areas: quality practices, student academic outcomes, and compliance. Quality practices includes all areas of a sponsor’s day-to-day work: review of proposed school applications, contracts, monitoring and oversight, renewal, school closure, technical assistance, and agency commitment. Student academic outcomes are evaluated based on learning gains made by students at different levels of proficiency. Compliance focuses on the extent to which a sponsor monitors the health and safety of children and staff. More information about the Quality Sponsor Practices Review is available here.

“We’re thrilled to have earned an exemplary rating,” said Michael J. Petrilli, President of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. “More importantly,...

Boarding schools are often associated with the rich and the privileged; as such, they are seen as an out-of-reach option for low-income families searching for high-quality education. But in a world of ever-increasing school choice, must boarding schools remain out-of-reach? Do tuition-free boarding schools that serve primarily academically struggling, low-income children exist?

The answer is yes, they do—but they’re extremely rare. A 2003 study from the University of Chicago interviewed policy experts, educators, child welfare and youth development professionals, and parents of children who attend boarding schools designed for students with social and economic disadvantages. The study concludes that “urban or community boarding schools represent a promising idea that deserves serious consideration.” Yet the authors are careful to point out that many people harbor concerns “about the meaning of out-of-home settings used primarily by low-income or minority children.” They cite America’s troubling legacy of using boarding schools for shameful reasons can lead to understandable suspicions about residential education models for low-income, high-need youth.

However, there are examples of places where the residential education model is already in place and working—and where families are thrilled with the results. In 2009, New York Times Magazine looked at the nation's first college-prep, tuition-free boarding school: the SEED school of Washington DC (also examined in the University of Chicago report). Run by the SEED Foundation, SEED DC is one three high-performing, college-preparatory public boarding schools that serve students from traditionally underserved communities. According to the foundation, approximately 98...

  1. While we rarely say “no thanks” to a media hit here at Fordham, sometimes we do worry about getting swept into stories by association with the topic. To wit: Fordham is namechecked and our two commissioned reports on charter school performance from December are referenced in this Dispatch piece first published Tuesday morning. It is about the Center for Education Reform’s new study of laws and policies in the 42 states (and the District of Columbia) that allow charter schools. Now Ohio’s grade of “C” stinks, no question, but the original version of this piece erroneously gave Ohio’s rank as 28 out of 43. The entire story – including Fordham’s namecheck – proceeded from this rank. Only, it’s wrong. Ohio’s rank was actually 14 out of 43. Still a “C”, still stinky, but an entirely different conversation should have arisen out of a top-15 finish, especially in regard to what is currently happening in every part of state government in Ohio to fix some long-standing problems. The same likely cannot be said of many other states. (Columbus Dispatch, 3/17/15)
     
  2. Speaking of that work to reform Ohio’s charter school law – it continues apace. HB 2 – the standalone bill on this topic – had an omnibus amendment added to it yesterday as promised by its sponsor last week, improving an already-good bill. Chad is quoted saying that very thing in this Dispatch piece. (Columbus Dispatch, 3/17/15)
     
  3. The PD’s take on the HB 2 amendment focuses
  4. ...
  1. We told you last week of Akron City Schools’ new plan to start an online charter school – with the help of a county ESC and Reynoldsburg City Schools – as indicated in their new itemized budget. On Friday, the Beacon-Journal spilled more of the beans and gave us not only program details, but rationale from district officials. They are aiming to recruit “300 elementary students they’ve identified as living in Akron but either home-schooled or attending a charter school” and “40 Akron high school students who have fallen behind on graduation credits.” What could be a godsend for Akron parents and their kids – a real way to do school differently for children already looking for/needing something other than the status quo – is reduced to the usual charter/e-school bashing. Good luck everyone. (Akron Beacon-Journal, 3/13/15)
     
  2. Speaking of charter schools, editors in Toledo opined on charter reform efforts this weekend. I was kind of hoping the title of the editorial was a subtle Monty Python reference, but after reading it I don’t think so. While the editorial takes aim at charter, I can’t help but think many of the same arguments apply to district schools. Feel free to reword that first paragraph, replacing “charter schools” with “traditional district schools”, “Toledo School for the Arts” with “John Hay HS in Cleveland” or its ilk, and “operators” with “unions”. It still makes sense. Weird. (Toledo Blade, 3/14/15)

Across the nation, the monopoly of traditional school districts over public education is slowly eroding. Trust-busting policies like public charter schools and vouchers have given parents and students more options than ever before. But how vibrant are school marketplaces in America’s largest districts? Now in its fourth year, the Education Choice and Competition Index is one of the best examinations of educational markets, rating the hundred most populous districts along four key dimensions: (1) access to school options; (2) processes that align student preferences with schools (e.g., common applications, clear information on schools); (3) policies that favor the growth of popular schools, such as funds following students; and (4) subsidies for poor families. The top-rated district, you ask? The Recovery School District in New Orleans won top marks in 2014, as it has in the two prior years. New York City and Newark, New Jersey, are close behind the Big Easy. The study commends these cities for their ample supply of school options—and just as importantly, for policies that support quality choice. For instance, this trio of cities (along with Denver) has adopted an algorithm that optimally matches student preferences with school assignments. All impressive stuff from which Ohio’s cities can learn (only Columbus was ranked, and it received mediocre marks). In the Buckeye State, for example, local funds rarely follow students to their school of choice, and reliable information on school quality is all too scarce. Lastly, this Ohio-based Gadfly writer would be remiss to...

Inter-district open enrollment (OEI) is a little-discussed school choice option (and the oldest choice program in Ohio) whereby districts open their schools to students from outside their jurisdiction. Today, 81.5 percent of all school districts in the state offer some form of open enrollment, yet there has been little formal evaluation of such programs, especially in terms of student achievement. Ronald Iarussi, head of the Mahoning County Education Service Center, and Karen Larwin, a professor at Youngstown State University, looked at ten years of student-level data in Mahoning County districts that offer open enrollment and examined the achievement of students utilizing the option. This is particularly important because Mahoning County has the second-highest OEI utilization numbers in the state. Achievement was defined as standardized assessment scores on state exams (reading, math, science, social science, and writing) for grades 3–8 as well as high school. Three findings stand out: 1) Students who left their home district for open enrollment performed at similar levels as those remaining in the home district; 2) students who left their home district for open enrollment performed, on average, slightly above their peers in that new district, even if they arrived in their new district with lower scores to start with; 3)  and both of these effects were amplified for students who left the very lowest-performing district in the county (Youngstown City Schools). The implication here, articulated more in a recent TV interview with the authors, is that if students perform as well or...

One of the most important developments in urban education over the last two decades has been the rapid expansion of school choice.

To some, this represents the happy, if unexpected, marriage of public education and free enterprise thinking—diversification of providers, growth of school options, and empowerment of parents.

But an underappreciated and counterintuitive contributor to this progress has been the reform-oriented technocrat. Indeed, in the years to come, if civil society and families are to make more decisions and the government is to make fewer, policymakers have a critical role to play.

For a century, we relied on the district system to deliver urban public education. There was a single government provider, it controlled all aspects of its schools, and students’ school assignments were based on home addresses. Countless policies and practices (related to facilities, transportation, accountability, and much more) evolved with that particular system in mind.

But as that system is slowly replaced by one marked by an array of nongovernmental school providers, parental choice, and the “portfolio management” mindset, new policies (undergirded by a new understanding of the government’s role in public schooling) are needed. That requires new government activity, much like the transition from a state-controlled to a private enterprise economy requires new rules related to property rights, lending, contracts, and currency.

Though the excellent new CRPE report “How Parents Experience Public School Choice” focuses on how families navigate choice-based systems, the new role of government is front and center.

Four examples are illustrative. First,...

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