Charters & Choice

Jason Bedrick

As the Fordham Institute’s education savings account (ESA) Wonkathon comes to a close, I thought it would be useful to summarize the views of the participants to identify areas of consensus and contention. As readers may recall, Fordham’s central question was:

As Nevada implements its groundbreaking education savings account program, what must it get right in order to provide positive outcomes for kids and taxpayers? Should state authorities stay out of the way? Or are there certain areas that demand oversight and regulation?

Inevitably, such summaries will lack the depth and nuance of the complete essays, but I will endeavor to faithfully record what I take to be the main recommendations from each wonk. The following summaries appear in the order that Fordham posted the originals:

Michael Goldstein (Match Education): Nevada needs an “individual, organization, or coalition of champions who take it upon themselves to ensure that their [state] provides excellent school options to all children and families.” This “harbormaster” would recruit high-quality providers to the state and provide parents with good information.

Seth Rau (Nevada Succeeds): Nevada should ensure that all ESA students take NNR tests and track...

It wasn't cool to be a "no-excuses," tough-love teacher for poor minority kids in the 1970s. That was the era of access centered "equity" for one and all, and most educators fretted more about kids struggling in school than about boosting their achievement. So academic standards (to the extent that there were any) were dumbed down, and lots of folks just took for granted the idea that environment was destiny. Kids from tough backgrounds, some thought, couldn't be expected to do all that well in school. 
Marva Collins thought otherwise. She believed—and said—that "kids don’t fail. Teachers fail, school systems fail. The people who teach children that they are failures—they are the problem.”
Then she put her own money and reputation on the line to prove that it didn't have to be that way. Along with a handful of other education renegades of the era (Jaime Escalante comes immediately to mind), she demonstrated that poor minority kids from inner-city environments could succeed just fine if given the right kinds of expectations, encouragement, and instruction. Today, we have plenty of these "proof points" in programs like KIPP, Achievement First, Success Academy, and many more. Most educators now understand that...

The Inside Out edition

Who actually opts out of states tests, charter schools at twenty-five, Cami Anderson’s resignation, and the effects of non-public revenue on public schools.

Amber's Research Minute

SOURCE: Meagan Batdorf et al., "Buckets of Water into the Ocean: Non-Public Revenue in Public Charter and Traditional Public Schools," Department of Education Reform,
University of Arkansas (June 2015). 

Michelle:       Hello. This is your host, Michelle Lerner, of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, here at the Education Gadfly Show and online at And now, please join me in welcoming my co-host, the Amy Poeller, a.k.a. joy of ed reform.

Alyssa:           I saw Inside Out this weekend, and I am joyful to hear that pop culture reference.

Michelle:       I knew you would love that, so I had to give you that one.

Alyssa:           Thank you.

Michelle:       I didn't want to go with anger or passive aggressiveness or whatever other ...

Alyssa:           I will admit ... this movie is all about the emotions that live in this 11-year-old girl's head, and my favorite was disgust. And I feel ...

Michelle:       Do you relate most closely with disgust?

Alyssa:           Sometimes, I feel she and I are a little simpatico, but she's also a character, two or three years later, if this was a movie about a 14-year-old girl, I feel disgust would have a much more prominent role, so I was a little miffed on the part of disgust that she didn't have such a centerpiece, but the movie was adorable. I know you haven't seen it yet.

Michelle:       Yes. I will be seeing it this weekend, so we will have a full discussion Monday morning.

Alyssa:           Okay.

Michelle:       At 9 AM.

Alyssa:           Maybe Wednesday on the podcast again?

Michelle:       And Wednesday on the podcast ...

Alyssa:           Maybe.

Michelle:       If we're back as hosts. We'll see if we're ever allowed back on depends how the next 30 minutes go.

Alyssa:           Let's see how this goes.

Michelle:       Among the voices in your head, do you listen to joy most?

Alyssa:           Oh, God. I don't know. Today I'm ... they don't have it in the movie, "tired," but today I'm listening to tired a little bit.

Michelle:       That's because teenagers aren't supposed to have that. Kids are ...

Alyssa:           They really don't. Oh, my God. No. They're just balls of energy but, yeah. No. Joy, I think, would be a pretty predominant emotion. She definitely ruled the movie. She was amazing, and I saw the movie with my parents. I have this inadvertent tradition of seeing a lot of Pixar movies with my parents, even though I am far too old for that, but it was nice to be with them.

Michelle:       You did not make the big mistake of seeing Toy Story 3 with your parents?

Alyssa:           I totally made that mistake, and so it was actually super bad timing, too, because ... spoiler alert for those who haven't seen a movie that came out five years ago now, but at the end of the movie, Andy goes off to college, and Andy gives all of his toys who have loved him so much to a little girl so she can love the toys too. I saw this movie with my parents maybe a week after I'd graduated from college. The day before I left to go to join Institute for Teach for America, which was my next step after college, and my mother just walked out halfway through. I remember her coming back. She was like, "I'm really okay." I'm like, "No, Mom. You're not. No one is okay right now."

Michelle:       I have to say that after I saw that movie, I spent 20 minutes in a room just by myself with my feelings. Joy and all the others.

Alyssa:           Pixar's great at pulling each and every emotion out of each and every person that sees it, and I got to say, Inside Out carries that tradition on very, very well.

Michelle:       I like to hear that, and while I wish we could talk about Inside Out and Pixar all day ...

Alyssa:           Next week.

Michelle:       We have to play “Pardon the Gadfly!”

Alyssa:           All right.

Michelle:       Dominique, take it away.

Dominique:   Question One: On Monday, Cami Anderson resigned as the Superintendent of Newark Public School System. Is this a good thing for the city and the school district?

Michelle:       Maybe.

Alyssa:           Maybe not.

Michelle:       I think that this was perhaps a decision that the district did not want to go through ... the fight anymore of defending Cami. Her initiative, while I think they were good for the district, I don't think they wanted to relive D.C. with Michelle Rhee. I think they're still going to bring in an ed-reformer, the rumor is Chris Cerf, which would be awesome. But I don't think the anti-reform crowd can throw up their arms in cheers that they've won here.

Alyssa:           Yeah, no. She came into a district that was ossified, that had a lot of corruption, that was incredible poorly performing and she came in on the initiative of Cory Booker and Chris Christie. She had democrat and a republican that she was kind of working for. She came into a very, very tough spot. I'll admit, she made a couple mistakes.

                        I re-read the New Yorker profile of her tenure and the decisions around bringing ed-reform to Newark yesterday, and it was exhaustive and also very, very long. There were some missteps, but she had a really tough situation. She had some victories and at the end of the day, she did outlast ... I was reading on Great City Schools' website, guess what the average tenure now, in 2014, was for a big city superintendent?

Michelle:       Two years?

Alyssa:           Close! It was 3.2 years, so she beat the curve. Kind of like you said, I do hope that the state brings in somebody who can kind of play the Kaya Henderson role. Cami shook a lot of stuff up, it is definitely not the same district it was when she came to the district and I'm hopeful that they can bring someone in who can really continue to push to make these reforms but can also connect with the community and bring people into the decision making process and make them feel a little more included in what's happening to their kids in their schools.

Michelle:       I think we're both agreeing that the D.C. model is really what we want to see.

Alyssa:           Yeah.

Michelle:       It's the fastest growing urban district [crosstalk 00:05:18].

Alyssa:           It's a pretty good district too, and a good place to live.

Michelle:       ... all of their improvements over the years. But, the question I have is: did Cami Anderson push Newark enough, to the same degree, that say, Michelle Rhee pushed D.C.? And then the other thing is, we have to remember that Kaya Henderson was in DCPS while Michelle Rhee was there.

Alyssa:           Yes, exactly.

Michelle:       So, it was almost just a continuing of the ed-reform, but a very big change in personality and how to approach things, but the ed-reforms where the same.

Alyssa:           Yeah, and there's definitely ... and you know in D.C. Kaya Henderson came in after Vince Gray won mayoralty? Mayorship? Mayoralship, I like that. But, even though he had defeated Adrian Fenty on kind of this school reform ... like, around issues of school, he was still very supportive of Kaya Henderson and of changing the D.C. schools, and that's not quite the situation that we have, politically, in Newark.

Michelle:       Well, and in D.C., Kaya Henderson also survived another mayoral election.

Alyssa:           Yeah.

Michelle:       And she's still here.

Alyssa:           Still here.

Michelle:       I think there's just broad agreement in D.C., at least for now, that this is a good path that DCPS is on and I don't think anyone is willing to shake things up and they want to stay forward because I think people who ... if someone did do that, they would get a lot of flack.

Alyssa:           Yeah. To answer your first question, about whether or not she made enough changes, I don't know, what do you think?

Michelle:       I don't know, I think only time will tell and that's sort of sad, but hopefully they bring in an ed-reformer. Hopefully they bring in somebody who will continue this work but has a different approach because one of ed-reform's big failures is talking to parents, talking to communities and not talking with them. Not including them in decisions.

Alyssa:           Mm-hmm.

Michelle:       Not talking about what and why we're pushing these reforms and I think that's a tough thing to learn but I think it might've been a lesson that was learned here.

Alyssa:           Yeah, so we just solved Newark. On that note, question number two.

Dominique:   Over at the Brookings Institution, Matthew Chingos wrote about who opts out of state tests. Does this change the opt out discussion?

Michelle:       Some of the major findings here, it's a bit of a wonky piece, but really short and worth the read. Matt looks at 648 districts, which had an average opt out rate of 28%, but when you weigh the districts based on enrollment, the average opt out rate is 21%. Larger districts have lower opt out rates. Districts with higher opt out rates serve fewer disadvantaged children. Districts with lower test scores have higher opt out rates. We can only talk about districts here and not students. Of course, Matt notes many times, this is preliminary data, and it's also reported by districts and there could be a reporting problem.

                        I think, to answer your question Dominique, this is a topic where everyone had a opinion instantly. They are very firm in their opinions and those opinions were formed before we had this data, which is preliminary. Of course the state will come out with more firm data later. I think this will change exactly zero people's minds. Like most discussions.

Alyssa:           I mean, the more we learn about who's opting out and what's happening in [New York 00:08:47], like the more nuance it does becomes. At first, it was like, everyone's opting out. All of these kids are walking out of tests, everyone's throwing up their pencils, notebooks, everything's gone.

                        Then it's like, it's just the very, very yuppie districts, and then it's like well, it's more affluent districts, but it's not the most affluent districts. Now this kind of nuance around the test scores comes in and so I think it's not a black and white photo, it's not something that's immediately going to have a clear line between a cause and an effect. New York's a very tricky situation. There's the teacher evaluation movements, there are a lot of ...

Dominique:   They're further along in common core implementation than other states.

Alyssa:           They have a lot of charter schools, particularly in urban areas, in more suburban areas, there's a lot of private schools. It's a complicated and I think as more data comes out, it's only going to become more complicated. This was, I think, a very interesting look at, as much as we can know, what's happening.

Michelle:       Exactly. I think you're going to see the opt out discussion continue for a while especially if ESEA moves here in Washington because they whole question of testing is frankly what prevented ESEA from being passed a few months ago.

Alyssa:           Which time?

Michelle:       There's rumors that it's back and that it can pass. We'll see. I think there's a communications problem here of, yeah, taking a test is never fun, there's nobody who thinks that, but it does give critical information federally to schools, to parents, and really communicating this is really critical if we are going to stop and opt out movement.

                        Because this is one of those issues where people of very different political leanings are coming together on this one issue, and whenever that happens I always get a little nervous. That when the moderates agree, that's a good thing, when the extremes agree, that's a bad thing.

Alyssa:           That's true. All right, question number three.

Dominique:   Chester Finn and Bruno Mano wrote this week about what charter proponents can learn from the school's first quarter century, and why there are good reasons for hope going forward. What lessons should reformers heed in the next 25 years?

Alyssa:           So this Chester Finn guy sounds pretty smart.

Michelle:       Yeah, he is pretty smart. He's also a tough editor. I don't know if he's ever edited anything you've written.

Alyssa:           Maybe once or twice I've gotten a couple of comments back from him on something I've written. Maybe once or twice.

                        Bruno and Chester are both very noted experts and very thoughtful writers on the issue of charter schools, and are kind of just taking stock. Charter school started in 1991, they're now 25 years old, the same as Taylor Swift. We've seen some really great things, but we've also seen places where what was expected didn't quite go as planned and it's time to kind of take stock, see where it's going next. What did you think?

Michelle:       I thought this was a really great article, if you weren't making charter school policy back in 1991. It's a good read. It really dives into the history. It really dives into all of the missteps along the way as well as sort of where we should go in the future. The policy topics that still need work. I think it would ... well, not surprisingly, I agreed with most of what was said because I work at Fordham and Checker and Bruno are both affiliated with Fordham and here are the same ideas.

                        I think what we've seen is that there is a lot of difference between states, both in the chartered law and how school are performing. I like that Checker and Bruno highlight the authorizing piece which I think we feel, more and more, is so critical and that's obviously stuff we're trying to fight for in Ohio and then our Dayton team is certainly on the ground knowledge with.

                        I was just happy to see that Maryland had the worst charter school law instead of Virginia.

Alyssa:           Where do you live again? Okay. There we go.

Michelle:       Which could've very well have also been the worst charter state, but you know, Virginia was.

Alyssa:           You know, I'm just going to point out that while Bruno and Check are pointed out a lot of the mixed results in D.C., D.C. came out smelling like a rose compared to the M and the V and the DMV. Just putting that out there.

Michelle:       Yeah, and I have to say that there's this big competition between Virginia and Maryland and everyone in D.C., is like "We're just superior,

Alyssa:           On so many levels. Yes we are.

Michelle:       "Of both of your states, so just why are you arguing?"

                        It's a really fantastic piece, and I think the question is ... Charters are here to stay. What do we want the next 25 years to look like to ensure that they are serving more kids, I think that's what we want to see. They're in more states with stronger laws, but what are the things that we should really tackle in the next two decades?

Alyssa:           I mean, the things I think we should tackle, I think that was the inadvertent question there, is definitely authorizing. It's something that we've realized is never simple, never easy and chartering is not this clean cut premise that it was in 1991. So I think we need to reform authorizing, but the other thing I would really like to see, and they do get into a bit towards the end is, kind of shifting the paradigm on who charters should serve. The initial charter law was passed in Minnesota. 

                        Charters were initially supposed to be kind of bastions of innovations, laboratories of democracy, where all these new lessons on how to educated children and also what works, were going to be incubated. We've seen that to some degree for college prep charter schools for low income urban and minority students. We've seen so much success there. We have KIPP. We have Uncommon. We have all of these great networks. I would like to see a little more innovation for the rest of the kids. For rural kids, for kids who live in suburbs, for kids who just want new and different things out of schools. We've done one thing well now let's apply those lessons we've learned there and do other things well too.

Michelle:       There's a huge challenge to charter schools in suburban and rural neighborhoods because you can't have a ton of them because there just aren't as many people and the transportation is more tricky and all of these things so I think there's challenges that policy makers have to consider. I would like to see a transition from thinking that charter schools are this new thing that we have to have to the idea that this is the reality now so we have to transition from the "let's get rid of the establishment and do this" to "now we have defend what we've done and we have to make sure they're performing, and if they're not, we have to live up to what we said and make tough decisions where tough decisions are necessary."

Alyssa:           Like many things that are 25, the charter movement is going to start taking on a little more adult responsibility, to stretch this analogy even further.

Michelle:       We're done with the quarter life crisis; let's get to the mid life crises.

Alyssa:           Oh god, now we're all going to start driving Porches.

Michelle:       All right.

Alyssa:           Okay, so we solved Newark and we just solved charter schools.

Michelle:       We're on a roll today.

                        You know, more people should go on vacation, 'cause I think we solve all of the issues when everyone else is out of the office.

Alyssa:           I like it.

Michelle:       All right. That's all the time we have for Pardon the Gadfly. Thank you Dominique. Up next is everyone's favorite: Amber's Research Minute.

                        Welcome to the show Amber.

Amber:           Thank you, Michelle.

Michelle:       So, have you seen the new Inside Out movie?

Amber:           I have not. But I'd love to.

Michelle:       But you have to see it.

Amber:           I love Pixar Movies.

Michelle:       It's so good. You have to go this weekend.

Amber:           I know, Dara was just telling me I needed to go see Mad Max?

Michelle:       No.

Amber:           I was like, it's about car racing and lots of that kind of stuff.

Alyssa:           Yeah, no.

Amber:           I'm much more into cartoons.

Alyssa:           It's so good.

Michelle:       Inside Out will be much more you than Mad Max.

Amber:           That's awesome, yeah. I don't know. I feel like when I go to those movies, I'm the only ... me and my husband we don't have kids, and we go and we just sit with all the families.

Michelle:       Oh no.

Alyssa:           No, no! Wait! I was telling Michelle earlier, not only did I go see this movie with my parents, so I'm like getting up there in years, and I'm there with a bunch of kids and my parents, who are even older than I am. Shocker. I've seen like most Pixar movies, starting from Toy Story 1, with my parents.

Amber:           All right, I'm going to go then. Because seriously we have free movie tickets, because the last movie went to, a huge storm knocked out the power and we got free tickets. So I've been waiting for a movie to go see.

Alyssa:           Use them. This one is totally worth ... this is worth the admission price.

Amber:           Okay. Definitely.

Michelle:       Okay, so report back next week.

                        What do you have for us today?

Amber:           We got a new study out by some researches from the University of Arkansas. That didn't sound interesting, but it is, it's called "Non-public Revenue, In Public Charter and Traditional Public Schools."

Alyssa:           I heard you did Sesame Street a couple weeks ago, so you're going to have to sell me.

Amber:           All right so, this is ... we've worked with these guys before. This is just sort of an aside, but these are some of the same folks that worked with Fordham when we came out with our charter inequity frontier, I'm getting that title terrible wrong but. It was one of the first studies that looked at the differences between charter and traditional schools in terms of the revenue difference and that charters basically get the shaft. But they're back with another report. Here they are looking, in depth, at non public funds, for fiscal year 2011, in both sectors, in 15 states. So in 15 states, they're like "okay, we have good data here, we're going to go here." This is not a representative sample.

                        Anyway, they dig into sort of the non public funds and this includes things like food service, that yummy cafeteria food that kids buy, investment revenue, program revenue, so any kind of program, you charge kids for maybe participating in x, y, and z, rental revenue and philanthropic funds, and a couple other ares that I won't go into.

                        So, Key findings: They find that traditional public schools receive 6.4 billion and charters 379 million in 2011, in non-public revenue. For traditional schools, this amounts to about $353 per pupil. For charters, it's an average of 579 per pupil. Yet, they are quick to say that these numbers vary by state. For instance, in Michigan, charters receive about 50% less in per pupil revenue from non-public sources than do the kids in traditional schools, so you got to look at the state level data.

                        The types of non-public revenue coming in, also changes by sector. In the traditional public schools, about 1/3 of those non-public monies come from food service. Those kids are buying those made up chicken burgers, whatever's in them. And miscellaneous. We've got this category that they couldn't really figure out. In the charter sector, philanthropy makes up almost a half of their non-public revenue. That boils down to 264 per pupil in the charter sector, and about 18 bucks per pupil in the traditional sector.

                        They make the point that the difference is obviously driven by the large student enrollments in traditional public schools, so you've got more kids to sort of spread this around. And again, the traditional public schools receive about double the amount of philanthropy in the absolute sense.

                        And then ... it's kind of a neat little report. They've packed a lot into a short report, so I'll just highlight a couple other things.

                        Philanthropic funds also vary greatly among charter schools. You say, "okay, are these funds being directed to all schools equally or not?" And they're not. About 1/3 of charters receive no funds at all from philanthropy. In the end, they've got this sort of roll up take away and I cut and paste it in my research minute 'cause I thought it hit the nail on the head. They say "although charitable funds, from philanthropy, make up almost half of the non-public revenue in the charter sector, they account for just 2.5% of total charter revenues nationally, so a tiny little but, and therefore cannot be expected to close the 21.7% total funding gap between the charter and the traditional sector in these 15 states.

Alyssa:           Wow!

Michelle:       You're right. That was really interesting.

Amber:           Right? Sorry, there was a lot in there, but, people make this big deal about "oh, but charters get all this philanthropy," and we hear it all the time right?

Michelle:       Mm-hmm.

Amber:           That's sort of a throw-away line. They're like "okay, let's check it out, and see where that's the case." And, you know, it's a partly true statement, right? For the reasons I explained. It's also, in the end I think they called ... the main title of the report is "Buckets in the Water," which means, in the end, it doesn't really make up too much of the total pie.

Alyssa:           Mm-hmm.

Michelle:       Was D.C. included in this study?

Amber:           You know, I need to go back and look. I don't know. They list the 15 that were in there.

Michelle:       Right.

Amber:           I can't remember off the top of my head. I think they said that their sample, in these places, they are comprised of states in which charters generally take in more philanthropic funds than in other states. So, you know, all these things to keep in mind.

Michelle:       Who knew that food service took up so much?

Alyssa:           Yeah, when they say food service are they talking the vending machines where I got a Kit-Kat after school, which I don't think are in schools anymore, or are they talking about the mystery meat chicken sandwich that ...

Amber:           They didn't say?

Michelle:       Now made with real white meat!

Amber:           I know it's the cafeteria. I'm not sure about the vending machines. And adults are spending money on theses things too.

Alyssa:           Right.

Amber:           I was a teacher and I used to get the pizza on Tuesdays and I know it was terrible for me but, you know.

Alyssa:           My favorite was, they brought in Pizza Hut bread sticks on Fridays and I would line up very early to get those.

Michelle:       Of course you would.

Amber:           We needed this study though right?

Michelle:       Yeah.

Amber:           I just feel like we've been hearing this for a while and so I think that, to dig into these numbers, and Larry Maloney's been doing this for a while and Pat Wolf and the other guys, they know how to do this study well. They've got this nice little caveat bar that sort of speaks to the Bruce Bakers of the world that says "this is our methodology, this is why we did it this way, this is why it makes sense," and so on, and so forth.

                        I really think that anyone who cares about ed-finance, especially between the sectors, this is kind of wonky, but it's written really well, and I think they'll find it of interest.

Michelle:       I just find it interesting that 1/3 of charters don't receive any philanthropic dollars.

Amber:           Nothing, right?

Michelle:       I could understand a charter in, say, Michigan, not being able to get funding from a national funder, but there are so many foundations that are city or region based, that you would think that more of these cities would be able to grab this money.

Alyssa:           I mean, I think it depends a lot on the school. If the school is very competently run and has a lot of infrastructure in place, and has somebody who is chasing those dollars so they can get that $10,000 grant to buy violins for the orchestra or whatever, then, yes, they are getting their pieces of the pie, small or large as those pieces may be.

                        But if the school is not very functional and not very well run and they have low test scores, they're having trouble keeping kids, and they have so many bigger fish to fry and it's the same pressures, I feel, all schools feel. You deal with academic first, then you deal with everything else and frequently those extra dollars are going to support those extra things.

Amber:           I think the underlying assumption, right, is that the brand names are capturing the dollars and the KIPPs of the world.

                        They weren't able to actually back up that assertion with these data, but, I think that's what most people would hypothesize is happening.

Alyssa:           Well, and I think our D.C. spending map, just to do a Fordham flag, cause I have to.

Michelle:       This is your second today, good job.

Alyssa:           Thank you.

Michelle:       On the podcast.

Alyssa:           Is the idea that everyone thinks "oh, well traditional public schools are all funded at the same level and charter schools must all get the same funding, whether it's philanthropic dollars or not and how there's so much difference at the school level and I think that's a message that has to get out. School finance is very wonky, but really critical to getting all these other reforms done that people want so, I think it's worth folks diving in and learning how to understand this stuff.

Amber:           Yeah.

Michelle:       Absolutely.

Amber:           Mm-hmm.

Alyssa:           All right, on that little finance lesson, thanks so much Amber.

Amber:           You're welcome.

Michelle:       That's all the time we have for this weeks' Gadfly show. Till next week.

Alyssa:           I'm Alyssa Schwenk.

Michelle:       And I'm Michelle Lerner for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, signing off.

This special edition of the Cowen Institute’s annual report marks the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, a horrific event that devastated New Orleans and its people—yet also offered a unique opportunity to rebuild one of the poorest-performing school districts in the country. Authors Vincent Rossmeier and Patrick Sims offer a comprehensive look at the city’s progress thus far, as well as the unusual circumstances that have turned the Big Easy into a petri dish of education innovation.

The New Orleans system is unique for a number of reasons. Ninety-three percent of its public school students attend charters, making it the most decentralized education system in the country. (Detroit comes in second with 55 percent.) It relies heavily on nonprofit services, such as arts education, after-school programming, professional training, family services, and more. And while each charter management organization (CMO) operates autonomously, all schools in the Recovery School District work together to coordinate services that require economies of scale or are needed by every child in the district. These include a centralized enrollment system, city-wide transportation, standards of discipline and expulsion, and shared funding to special needs services and facility maintenance (demonstrating that commonsense policies can find a home in...

In school choice debates, the role that magnet schools can and should play often gets drowned out by arguments over charters, vouchers, ESAs, and the like. That’s a shame. Many of our best public high schools are magnets, and there have been several compelling—albeit anecdotal— analyses showing that rigorous magnet programs can be a boon for low-income kids (including, of course, a book by Chester Finn).

Since the 1970s, however, the definition of magnet schools has broadened to include any kind of specialized curriculum, from arts and languages to experiential learning and STEM. In many cases, the schools are not selective (or particularly selective). Magnet schools have been created by district administrators for purposes beyond academic rigor—most notably to promote desegregation or to offer more choices to families. The American Institute for Research’s recent study takes a look at whether magnet elementary schools are able to achieve their intended aims.

The study follows twenty-one schools that receive funds from the Department of Education’s Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP) to convert into magnets. The analysts found a mixed legacy of success: The schools surveyed showed some indications of increased diversity, and “traditional magnets”—those with lower pre-conversion achievement rates—improved in English...

Minnesota passed the nation’s first charter school law in 1991, nearly twenty-five years ago. And it’s been fifteen years since we published Charter Schools in Action, which described this educational innovation as a promising path to stronger student achievement and an engine “to recreate the democratic underpinnings of public education and rejoin schools to a vigorous civil society.”

Since 1991, forty-three states and the District of Columbia have allowed for the existence and operation of these independent public schools of choice. Today, some 6,700 of them serve nearly three million students, almost 6 percent of U.S. public school enrollment. They are the fastest-growing school choice option in the country and already educate more than half as many children as attend private schools, which have been around for ages. They are, in fact, as close to a “disruptive innovation” as American K–12 education has ever seen. They have created a new market and an alternative delivery system that affords long-neglected families access to potentially higher-quality schools than they find within the traditional district structure.

Yet for all its promise, impressive growth, and visibility in the public square, the charter movement has ample room to improve. The first quarter-century of chartering has...

In Fordham’s second annual Wonkathon, fourteen wonks opined on education savings accounts:

As Nevada implements its groundbreaking education savings account program, what must it get right in order to provide positive outcomes for kids and taxpayers? Should state authorities stay out of the way? Or are there certain areas that demand oversight and regulation?

But who was the wisest, wonkiest wonk of all? Vote for the best policy discussion on education savings accounts. (And may the best wonk win!)

Rabbi A.D. Motzen

This is the fourteenth entry in Fordham’s education savings account Wonkathon. This year, Mike Petrilli challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to opine on ESAs. Click to read earlier entries from Michael GoldsteinSeth RauMatthew LadnerJonathan ButcherTracey WeinsteinAndy SmarickNeerav KingslandLindsey M. BurkeJason BedrickAdam PeshekRobin LakeTravis Pillow, and Robert Tagorda.

"Universal school choice," screamed the headline at National Review Online. The reference, of course, was to Nevada's new education savings account (ESA) bill. Celebrated by school choice organizations in multiple press releases—and even by some, but not all, of the previous posts in this Wonkathon series—as a "universal" ESA, the new program is creating quite a buzz. The headlines, however, are missing an asterisk. 

The Nevada ESA bill is broad. It's bold. It deserves to be celebrated, but it's not universal. Calling the program “universal” ignores the tens of thousands of Nevada families excluded from the program, and it may even prevent other states from achieving truly universal school choice.

Defining “universal”

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines universal as "including or covering all or a...

Robert Tagorda

This is the thirteenth entry in Fordham’s education savings account Wonkathon. This year, Mike Petrilli challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to opine on ESAs. Click to read earlier entries from Michael GoldsteinSeth RauMatthew LadnerJonathan ButcherTracey WeinsteinAndy SmarickNeerav KingslandLindsey M. BurkeJason BedrickAdam PeshekRobin Lake, and Travis Pillow.

If you read SB 302, the Nevada legislation that establishes education savings accounts, you quickly realize how ambitious the program is. Section 9 enumerates the appropriate uses of funds, including transportation costs “up to but not to exceed $750 per school year.” Section 12 puts the onus on educational entities to ensure that students take mandatory norm-referenced exams in language arts and math — and “provide for value-added assessments of the results.” Section 15.5 goes beyond academics, affirming that children who “opt in” to the program “must be allowed to participate in interscholastic activities and events” sanctioned by a statewide body.

These legislative details may seem arcane in isolation. But collectively, they illustrate the sweeping and comprehensive nature of the bill. ESAs are not envisioned as accessories...

Travis Pillow

This is the twelfth entry in Fordham’s education savings account Wonkathon. This year, Mike Petrilli challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to opine on ESAs. Click to read earlier entries from Michael GoldsteinSeth RauMatthew LadnerJonathan ButcherTracey WeinsteinAndy SmarickNeerav KingslandLindsey M. BurkeJason BedrickAdam Peshek, and Robin Lake.

Private school choice programs have historically targeted students who need extra help, like low-income kids or children with special needs. Nevada’s education savings accounts have gotten a lot of buzz, in part, because they break that tradition. Their availability to nearly all students gives them an unprecedented chance to spur innovation for students who haven’t typically been the focus of school choice advocates.

The providers that emerge to serve these students could look quite different from ordinary schools. Picture micro-schools that meet one day a week for a single subject and share course materials digitally, or traditional private schools that allow students to come in for just an hour or two of classes a day, which they pay for a la carte.

Take advantage of parents as active...