Charters & Choice

In theory, competition has the potential to boost quality and lower prices. But how is this theory working in education? This report from the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice provides an overview of the research on competition in American K–12 education and offers suggestions to enhance the competitive environment.  

The report finds that competition in the form of charters, vouchers, and tax credits does inspire competitive gains, but these gains are relatively small. An in-depth literature review reveals that forty of the forty-two studies on the impact of competition on public school students’ test scores find neutral-to-moderately-positive effects. These findings run counter to one of the most common arguments against choice programs—namely, that school alternatives do academic harm to those “left behind.”

The report also examines whether school choice’s ability to exert market pressure decreases educational costs. While the answer to that question is unclear, the report did note a discrepancy in the efficiency—defined as effectiveness per dollar—between traditional public and choice options. Charter schools appear to be doing more with less; although they receive about 28 percent less funding per student than local district schools, they are achieving greater student gains. According to a study by...

Alex Medler

Editor's note: This is the final post in Fordham's 2016 Wonkathon. We've asked assorted education policy experts to answer this question: What are the "sleeper provisions" of ESSA that might encourage the further expansion of parental choice, at least if advocates seize the opportunity? Prior entries can be found herehereherehereherehereherehere, here, and here.

I nominate one of the smallest pieces of the ESSA as a potential high-leverage point for choice. Hidden in the Charter School Program (CSP) amid language shaping the grants administered by State Education Agencies (SEAs) is a little provision that could eventually lead to big changes regarding school choice. States can now spend 7 percent of their grants on system-level changes to support charter school expansion and quality.

Most everyone in the charter world knows that the CSP received more than $330 million this year. The biggest portion of that money goes to SEAs in the form of grants (which underwrite the sub-grants the SEAs themselves award to would-be charters in order to meet start-up costs). Let’s consider how a small bit—if people are smart about how they use it—could drive big change.

The SEA grant program traditionally allowed...

Brian Kisida

Editor's note: This is the tenth post in Fordham's 2016 Wonkathon. We've asked assorted education policy experts to answer this question: What are the "sleeper provisions" of ESSA that might encourage the further expansion of parental choice, at least if advocates seize the opportunity? Prior entries can be found herehereherehereherehereherehere, and here.

There isn’t much in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) that explicitly addresses school choice. Still, there will likely be indirect effects from some ESSA policies. Specifically, I think there are two key areas where ESSA will have important implications for school choice. First, both the weighted student funding pilot program and the new requirement to report school-level expenditures will further solidify the idea that dollars should follow students, which will likely lead to increases in school choice funding levels. Second, the requirement for more diverse measures in state accountability systems aligns with school choice’s focus on innovation and specialization. With academic success defined across a broader set of outcomes, the ability for choice schools to pursue broader academic outcomes will be less constrained.

School-level spending transparency and student-based budgeting

Under ESSA, states will be required to report expenditures at the school...

Jordan Posamentier

Editor's note: This is the ninth post in Fordham's 2016 Wonkathon. We've asked assorted education policy experts to answer this question: What are the "sleeper provisions" of ESSA that might encourage the further expansion of parental choice, at least if advocates seize the opportunity? Prior entries can be found hereherehereherehereherehere, and here.

ESSA provides states with the opportunity to incentivize school districts to expand parent choice. States now have the freedom to relax their NCLB-driven state laws while incentivizing local authorities to go about improving choice in their school systems.

ESSA replaced NCLB, but the law of the land leading up to reauthorization was shaped by the Obama administration’s waiver program. The Department of Education used those waivers to compel states to pass a number of rather prescriptive laws, which tied the hands of districts in some policy areas. Perhaps the most onerous requirement was performance-based teacher evaluations, which—while well intentioned—were also highly constraining.

ESSA cleared the regulatory deck established by the waiver program, but by and large, the state laws that passed because of those waivers are still on the books. To unbind districts from those laws, states can now do one of three...

Last month, Attorney General Mike DeWine toured Citizens Academy, one of the eleven charter schools in the Breakthrough Schools network. Breakthrough, whose schools rank among the top in the state, serves 3,300 Cleveland students in grades K–8. Founded in 1999, Citizens Academy is among Ohio’s oldest charter schools and places special focus on both academic excellence and responsible citizenship. We at Fordham spotlighted Citizens as one of Ohio’s high-performing, high-poverty schools in our 2010 report Needles in a Haystack. The charter school has also been named a National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education and has received honors from the Ohio Department of Education. Today, the school educates approximately 440 pupils, almost all of whom come from low-income families. 

Attorney General Mike DeWine poses for a photo with Citizens Academy students

Attorney General DeWine’s visit to Citizens Academy is especially fitting, as he has championed initiatives to rebuild Ohio’s urban neighborhoods by promoting economic development and neighborhood and school safety. High-performing charter schools like Citizens and its Breakthrough counterparts play a vital role in creating safe, sustainable neighborhoods...

Travis Pillow

Editor's note: This is the eighth post in Fordham's 2016 Wonkathon. We've asked assorted education policy experts to answer this question: What are the "sleeper provisions" of ESSA that might encourage the further expansion of parental choice, at least if advocates seize the opportunity? Prior entries can be found herehereherehereherehere, and here.

Regardless of exactly how they're funded, schools all over the United States face a basic problem. Many of those serving the most disadvantaged students tend to have the fewest resources.

In a nod to equity advocates, the new federal education law includes a modest attempt to entice school districts toward a solution: weighted funding. The Every Student Succeeds Act includes a pilot program that, in its first three years, would allow up to fifty districts to allocate funding to schools based on the characteristics of students they enroll. Schools would receive more funding for children who have special needs, speak a native language other than English, or come from a low-income families.

Many of the school finance reforms sought by choice advocates, such as true funding portability, didn't make it into the new statute. While the pilot program won't usher in a financing system in...

Christy Wolfe

Editor's note: This was a submission to Fordham's 2016 Wonkathon. We asked assorted education policy experts to answer this question: What are the "sleeper provisions" of ESSA that might encourage the further expansion of parental choice, at least if advocates seize the opportunity? Of the eleven submissions, this was selected as the winner by a poll of our readers.

One of my biggest concerns about ESSA has been its lack of a meaningful “safety valve” for kids in failing schools. There is no getting around the fact that this version of ESEA does not spell out parent-directed education options the same way No Child Left Behind did, with its explicit provisions for supplemental educational services and school choice. When ESSA eliminated the “cascade of sanctions” for schools deemed “in need ofimprovement”, explicit references to closing schools and reopening them as charters also disappeared. There are no requirements (let alone incentives) for choice and transportation.

What we learned from NCLB, though, is that unwanted mandates don’t usually lead to much real access to seats in better schools. Washington can tell a district it must offer school choice regardless of capacity, but in the real world the absence of high-quality...

Over a million students nationally wait for seats to open up in already-full charter schools. Many more attend failing schools in neighborhoods that could benefit from the high-quality charter networks revolutionizing public education in places like Newark and New Orleans. In the face of a clear and persistent need for excellent charter schools, what stands in the way of their growth? This paper from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) attempts to answer this question by examining constraints on charter expansion.

Authors Jenn Hatfield and Ian Lindquist profile three of the nation’s oldest and most successful networks: Uncommon Schools (forty-three schools in six northeast cities), Great Hearts Academies (twenty-seven schools in Phoenix and, recently, Texas), and Carpe Diem Learning (six schools scattered throughout Arizona, Indiana, Ohio, and Texas). They use in-depth interviews with teachers, principals, staff, and executives within each network to explore two sides of the same coin: What factors facilitated the growth of these networks, and conversely, what factors deterred them and likely still hinder others?

Specifically, they seek to identify the “bottlenecks” limiting each operator’s expansion. All three networks experienced problems with authorizers and/or identified authorizer relationships as essential to manage well. For instance, Great Hearts’ attempted Nashville expansion was blocked by the local...

Tim Daly

Does keeping a child in a school that appears to be struggling mean that parents are happy with it? Should we consider resistance to school closures a sign of demand for those schools?

Those are two of the big questions raised for me in a fascinating debate between Jay Greene and Mike Petrilli about the role test scores should play in school closure.

It’s true that parents often fight back when their children’s schools are going to be closed. And why not? In most cases, they’re losing their current option without being offered a replacement. They are told to go find a new school. Often, the alternatives are not much better than the old schools, and they may be a lot less convenient. It’s not a trade. It’s a one-sided loss—and a huge headache.

But we should be careful about assuming that just because their kids are still enrolled in a school, parents like that school. Enrollment is modest proxy for family satisfaction. Instead of asking parents if they want their children’s schools to remain open, we should ask them whether they would choose to stay if they had other options. Then we should give them other options.

Here’s something that...

The school choice tent is much bigger than it used to be. Politicians and policy wonks across the ideological spectrum have embraced the principle that parents should get to choose their children’s schools and local districts should not have a monopoly on school supply.

But within this big tent, there are big arguments about the best way to promote school quality. Some want all schools to take the same tough tests and all low-performing schools (those that fail to show individual student growth over time) to be shut down (or, in a voucher system, to be kicked out of the program). Others want to let the market work to promote quality and resist policies that amount to second-guessing parents.

In the following debate, Jay Greene of the University of Arkansas’s Department of Education Reform and Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute explore areas of agreement and disagreement around this issue of school choice and school quality. In particular, they address the question: Are math and reading test results strong enough indicators of school quality that regulators can rely on them to determine which schools should be closed and which should be expanded—even if parental demand is inconsistent with...

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