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...

The National Conference of State Legislatures has put together a nice primer on accountability for private school choice programs. Twenty-three states, one Colorado district, and the District of Columbia presently have such programs, including “traditional” tuition vouchers, education savings accounts, scholarship tax credits, and personal tax credits or deductions. Accountability requirements for schools participating in such programs vary widely. Most states require: 1) a measure of school quality (whether via student assessment data or outside accreditation), 2) determination of financial strength and sustainability, and 3) meeting minimum seat-time requirements. Once private schools are permitted to accept voucher students and public dollars begin to flow, the range of accountability measures—and the consequences of failing to meet them—broadens. Programs differ by the tests they require participating students to take (the same state assessments as their public school peers or tests of the schools’ own choosing), how and to whom test results are reported, whether outside accreditation can substitute for testing, and the level and timing of sanctions related to low performance. NCSL’s report provides an overview of the varying ways that these accountability measures function in Louisiana, Indiana, and Wisconsin. As we concluded in Fordham’s private school choice policy toolkit last year, “private schools must maintain their autonomy and the qualities that make them worth choosing,” but a “sound balance” is needed between that autonomy and the need for taxpayers to know that their education dollars are being spent on “bona fide educational achievement.” NCSL’s report provides helpful context for state...

Here’s the top-line takeaway from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes’s (CREDO) comprehensive Urban Charter Schools Report, which is meant to measure the effectiveness of these schools of choice: For low-income urban families, charter schools are making a significant difference. Period.

CREDO looked at charter schools in forty-one urban areas between school years 2006–07 and 2011–12. Compared to traditional public schools in the same areas, charters collectively provide “significantly higher levels of annual growth in both math and reading”—the equivalent of forty days of additional learning per year in math and twenty-eight additional days in reading. As a group, urban charters have been particularly good for black, Hispanic, and English language learner (ELL) subpopulations. Indeed, putting the word “urban” before the phrase “charter school” is becoming somewhat redundant. As Sara Mead recently pointed out, urban students comprise only a quarter of students nationally, but more than half (56 percent) of those enrolled in charters. Thus, perhaps the most encouraging finding in the study is that the learning gains associated with urban charter schools seem to be accelerating. In the 2008–09 school year, CREDO found charter attendance producing an average of twenty-nine additional days of learning for students in math and twenty-four additional days of learning in reading. By 2011–12, it was fifty-eight additional days of math and forty-one of reading.

Not all that glitters is gold, of course. There’s no inherent magic to the word “charter” on the front door of a school. The relative success of urban...

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. ...

Editor’s note: This is the eighth in a series of personal reflections on the current state of education reform and contemporary conservatism by Andy Smarick, a Bernard Lee Schwartz senior policy fellow with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. The previous posts in this series can be seen hereherehereherehere, here, and here.

Many reformers work to ensure that every child has access to great schools. Similar universal aspirations have inspired countless others—the recognition of unalienable rights, the elimination of poverty, the fair distribution of resources.

Indeed, the question of how to define and realize “justice” has consumed philosophers for centuries. A key lesson from this Everest of scholarship is that all approaches require tradeoffs.

Unfortunately, our field doesn’t talk much about tradeoffs, and we certainly don’t talk about philosophy. You’ll not find in your conference program, “Plato, Aquinas, and Nietzsche: The Metaphysics of Annual Testing.”

But this is not to say that reform is philosophy-free. Conservatives led this movement twenty-five years ago; their skepticism of government monopolies and public sector unions and commitment to empowering parents and diversifying options owed much to Smith, Mill, and Friedman. 

Today, progressives dominate education reform, and progressivism is stirred by calls for “social justice” and transfixed by economic inequality. Accordingly, the word “equity” is ubiquitous in our world.

TNTP recommended an “equity fund.” TFA launched Leadership for Educational Equity. The administration’s recently released its vision for educator “equity plans.”

The late philosopher John Rawls is this...

  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)

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