Charters & Choice

Yesterday in his column, Jay Mathews asks a question that plagues many of us:

"How do parents evaluate the schools their children may attend and escape the heartbreak of buying a great house that turns out to be in the attendance zone of a flawed school?"

Mathews proceeds to list "10 Ways to Pick the Right School," - suggestions like do your research, visit the school, check performance data, etc. But at least one resident of Columbus, Ohio, has come up with his own solution to avoid putting his kids in low-performing schools-- buy a $1 million dollar home in the city, rent a small apartment in a neighboring excellent school district and send your kids there, then sue the school district and the state superintendent when they try to stop you.

Today's Education Gadfly and Wall Street Journal editorial both capture the most important news about Caroline Hoxby's well-publicized study on NYC charters ??? she rebuts the argument that charters' success rests on ???creaming??? the best students from district schools.

As the WSJ tells it:

The study nullifies any self-selection bias by comparing students who attend charters only with those who applied for admission through the lottery, but did not get in. "Lottery-based studies," notes Ms. Hoxby, "are scientific and more reliable."

In other words, she compares charter versus district school students without the worry that charter students are somehow different, not just demographically or academically, but because their parents may be more concerned about their educations (as evidenced by their choosing a charter). The comparison students/parents made that same choice, and they fared worse when left in a district school.

That's a pretty good rebuttal to charter critics like Richard Rothstein and Lawrence Mishel , who have argued (in part) that KIPP's success is over-stated because parents there are more motivated. (Rothstein has also argued that charters may not work well for kids whose parents are simply not motivated???Hoxby's analysis can't address that question.)

Yet Jonathan Gyurko (who certainly supports NYC charters) thoughtfully points out that it's not a perfect rebuttal. Hoxby herself suggests charters may indeed be getting better students (because the rejected students subsequently did relatively well in district schools, even if not as well as they would have...

This weekend saw a flurry of news stories on education in Ohio, and Fordham was in the middle of these in our usual roles of analysts and prognosticators.

The Columbus Dispatch chronicled the struggles and triumphs of KIPP Journey Academy and Building Excellent Schools' Columbus Collegiate Academy, both of which are authorized by the Fordham Foundation. Columbus Collegiate was applauded for delivering excellent results in its start-up year; while the paper noted KIPP Journey's first-year hiccups and offered reasons for hope going into the new school year.????The Dayton Daily News highlighted Pathway School of Discovery, a charter school operated by National Heritage Academies that is the city's only A-rated elementary school. The Cleveland Plain Dealer shared that even though 65 percent of Cleveland charter school students, and 71 percent of their district peers, attend schools rated D or F by the state, some of the state's highest performing charter schools operate in that city, including Citizens Academy, Cleveland Entrepreneurship Preparatory School, and the Intergenerational School.???? All three articles cited Fordham's annual analysis of Ohio school performance data (conducted in partnership with our friends at Public Impact).

Also this weekend in the Dayton Daily News op-ed pages: Terry explored the challenge of rating schools fairly based on academic performance and Jamie explained how Ohio could benefit from retaining the talented young people we lose to Teach for America each year....

State Superintendent of??Louisiana??Paul Pastorek says the state will retain control of RSD for at least a few more years--and maybe forever. In a recent poll conducted in New Orleans, schools were found to be the number one improvement area in a pre- and post- Katrina comparison. It seems the state and people of New Orleans are wary of re-entrusting their schools to the New Orleans Parish School Board, especially in the wake of this improvement (and the Board's terrible history). State takeovers used to be a temporary relief tactic, reserved only for the most wayward of districts, and implemented only long enough to get the troublesome municipality back on the right track. Will Louisiana blaze yet another trail and implement permanent state control over the city of New Orleans? And will other states, perhaps with cities that need a Katrina-esque "do-over" (like Michigan's Detroit), follow suit?

In February, during the heated political debate around Governor Strickland's education reform plan, I wrote an opinion piece for the Columbus Dispatch that argued the governor's attack on for-profit charter schools "would be a blow for needy children and families. For example, the top-performing elementary school in Dayton in 2008 - the Pathway School of Discovery - is a charter school operated by the National Heritage Academies. Does it make sense to toss 570 children out of a school rated effective (the only elementary school in Dayton so designated) solely because it is operated by a for-profit company?"

Fortunately for the families and children in the Pathway School of Discovery, the governor's attacks on charter schools were largely defeated by the Senate. I say fortunate because the school received its state report card this week and it was rated excellent (an A) by the state of Ohio, and it was one of only two schools in the city with a top academic rating (the other being the charter high school DECA).

In Ohio, we simply have too few schools - charters or district - that serve needy children in our urban areas well. Consider just released state achievement data that show of the 648 schools (176 charters and 472 district schools) serving children in Ohio's Big 8 cities (Akron, Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo and Youngstown)???? only eight percent of charters are rated excellent while a meager seven percent of district schools have...

The U.S. Open starts on Monday and the opening ceremony will have a special guest: Andre Agassi. The United States Tennis Association plans to celebrate the charitable work of his post-tennis retirement, specifically the founding of a charter school in Las Vegas, Nevada!

I'm just as outraged as Jamie about the general American populace's ignorance about charters... but I can't say I'm surprised. Take for example this survey of federal spending from the U.S. Census Bureau. Here's how they define charters:

The data in this report include only those charter schools established and administratively controlled by another government entity (e.g. universities, cities, counties, or public school systems). The data for these "public charter schools" are collected as separate, individual units, or are included with the data for their chartering government. Charter schools that do not meet Census Bureau criteria for classification as a government entity are considered "private charter schools" and are not included in this report.

In order for a charter school to be classified as a "public charter school" it must meet the same requirements as any other government. It must be an organized entity, with substantial autonomy, and government character. Typically if the schoolboard is appointed by public officials then the charter school would be classified as governmental. A few "public charter schools" are run by public universities, and municipalities. However, most charter schools are run by private nonprofitorganizations and are therefore classified as private.

HUH? No wonder everyone's confused when a freaking federal department can't even get it right. I don't know what a private charter school is, but if you see one in the wild, snap a photo and we'll submit it as a new species.

It surely doesn't help, either, that states from...

Okay, I know I'm about the 31,487th person to pick up on this, but there's one factoid in the 2009 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll of Americans' attitudes toward public schools that is driving me especially nutty. Although the number of respondents who favor charter schools rose to 64 percent (up from 49 percent last year), the majority of Americans still don't know what charter schools really are. Most respondents admitted they thought charters were not public, could charge tuition, could screen students on the basis of ability, and/or could teach religion. Agh! (None of this is true, by the way, if any poll respondents are reading). A 2009 Fordham report looking at Ohioans views on education had similar results-52 percent of respondents said they favored charters. Meanwhile, 55 percent said they knew little to nothing about them.

I'm reminded of many frustrating conversations I've had along the way, trying to defend why I support charters and explain to cousin Millie or Uncle George or a public school teacher at a conference that yes, I agree with them that public schools should NOT be disbanded, and no, I DON'T think we should pay public schools to teach bible verses to children, etc. and also that none of that thinking is accurate whatsoever.

Charter schools are "secular, tuition-free, open enrollment public schools of choice that are freed from many local and state regulations and union contract constraints. They control their own curriculum, staffing, organization and budget. In...

The Education Gadfly

The following is a guest post from Fordham Staff Assistant Mickey Muldoon.

Vying for a share of the federal Race to the Top money, West Virginia educational leaders oppose charter schools because the evidence on their average effectiveness is mixed, yet they pass legislation for a new school model for which there is no research support at all. The recent state law allows West Virginia to designate 10 schools as "Innovation Zones," provided that 80 percent of school staff, the county school board, and state education board, and the State Superintendent approve of the school's new plan. An approved plan would allow the school to waive regulations on working hours, school calendar, and compensation--nearly the same autonomy enjoyed by charter schools, state officials argue--though it could be revoked upon the state board's yearly review. Seems the only difference is that these innovation zone schools will remain under district oversight, implying that that is the key element that would improve charter outcomes. But is it? Special Assistant to the State Superintendent Steve Paine insists that it's ok that "innovation zones" aren't research-proven because the reforms being used in them are.

But that leaves a lurking question: If you can find a such a set of reforms that are "tried and tested," that 80 percent of a given school's staff agree to, and that local and state boards and the State Superintendent of Education can agree to, doesn't that amount to consensus that the reforms shouldn't be prohibited...

Laura Pohl

Teachers and administrators arrive at Columbus Collegiate Academy by 7am.

Teachers prepare their lessons in a central planning room.

Columbus Collegiate teachers wheel their lessons among the school's four classrooms.

Andrew Boy, Columbus Collegiate's founder and principal, prepares breakfast for the students. "I don't ask the staff to do anything I wouldn't do myself," he said.

Students learn the "four times tables" by singing a song with hand movements.

Checking out a book at the classroom library.

Photographs by Laura Pohl and Eric Ulas

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