Charters & Choice

  • The ink is dry on the bill, the interest groups are mollified, and the lobbyists have made the first payments on their tastefully appointed condominiums. Now that the Every Student Achieves Act has become the law of the land, it’s time to examine its implications for our federal education bureaucracy. Ace Fordham policy fellow Andy Smarick has identified the shrinking classroom influence of Uncle Sam as the top media takeaway from ESSA’s passage, and there’s no denying that Congress acted decisively to roll back the Department of Education’s Obama-era authority. But just how much has the agency—and John King, who will act as its leader regardless of whether he ever gets a confirmation hearing—seen its prerogatives narrowed? This recap from Education Week offers a good primer, consulting aides from both parties along with education superlawyer Reg Leichty. Shockingly, the sources don’t agree on whether future secretaries of education will be “handcuffed” in their dealings with state accountability schemes. But as Leichty happily observes, those differences in opinion will likely be resolved in the courts.
  • Now that it’s the second week of January, you’ve probably received your W-2 tax form. And as the old saying goes, there are
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In a recent blog post, Jason Bedrick of the Cato Institute attributes the apparently troubling results of a recent study on Louisiana’s private school voucher program to the theory that “[r]egulations intended to guarantee quality might well have had the opposite effect. The high level of private school regulation appears to have driven away better schools.”

As the head of the regulatory agency for traditional public, charter public, and non-public schools in Louisiana, I think it’s important to discuss the facts behind the study, as they raise questions about the conclusions reached by both the researchers and Mr. Bedrick.

More important, however, is the larger implication I take from Mr. Bedrick’s thesis: that private school choice advocates in America, Mr. Bedrick among them, have failed to establish a coherent, prevailing belief system about the role of private schools in providing an education of measured quality, at scale, for the nation’s most disadvantaged youth. I’ll spend most of this post on that subject.

First, the facts.

Mr. Bedrick is right that a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research showed very low performance among students in Louisiana’s voucher program compared to the performance of students not offered a voucher (who...

A new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research examines how Louisiana’s statewide voucher program affects student achievement. The Pelican State expanded its program statewide in 2012; by 2014, twelve thousand students had applied for more than six thousand slots to attend 126 private schools. Because the program was oversubscribed, the vouchers were randomly assigned such that some kids were offered vouchers and some weren’t. This study focuses on roughly 1,400 grade students in grades 3–8 who applied in fall 2012—the first application cohort after the program expanded.

The primary (and surprising) finding is that attending a voucher-eligible private school reduces voucher students’ test scores in math, ELA, science, and social studies (though ELA is not significantly lower). Math scores go down by 0.4 standard deviation one year after the lottery, and for other subjects, the drop is between one-quarter and one-third of a standard deviation. Voucher use also reduces the probability of being promoted to the next grade and shifts students into lower state performance categories. The outcomes are even bleaker for younger children.

In short, this is all very bad news. But remember that these are first-year outcomes, and first-year evaluations of anything ought to be...

This study compares “diverse” and “non-diverse” charter schools in Washington, D.C., focusing on three areas: academic proficiency, academic growth, and suspensions. It focuses particularly on the eighty-seven D.C. charter schools (out of 112 total) where more than twenty-five students took the DC CAS test between 2011 and 2014, of which twenty-seven are “diverse”—defined as having a student population that is less than 80 percent African American. (No other race accounts for more than 80 percent of the student body at any school in the study, though a few schools that were excluded for technical reasons are more than 80 percent Hispanic.)

Overall, the study finds no statistically significant differences between diverse and non-diverse schools when it comes to proficiency and growth. When the results are broken down by subgroup, however, some interesting differences emerge. For example, African American and at-risk students have higher proficiency rates and lower suspension rates at diverse schools, but they exhibit no differences in growth; on the other hand, there are no significant differences for Hispanic students in any of these areas. (Unfortunately, there are too few white students at non-diverse schools to make any comparisons.)

A secondary analysis that restricts the sample to diverse schools...

  • The feds must have been in a festive mood in the days leading up to Christmas, when they finally closed a four-year-old investigation into Wisconsin’s school voucher program. The probe was triggered by a 2011 complaint, jointly filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and local group Disability Rights Wisconsin, alleging that private schools were discriminating against students with disabilities. This was always a spurious charge on a few grounds. For one thing, private institutions aren’t bound by the same mandates as public ones under the Americans with Disabilities Act, making the case a tough sell from the start. For another, the few accommodations they are required to make for the disabled are difficult to achieve, since private schools receive much less federal funding than public ones. In an effort to negate the problem, state legislators have already inserted additional outlays for disability vouchers into future budgets. With any luck, the investigation’s death will help restore the reputation of a useful tool for expanded school choice.
  • Not all anti-reform agitation starts with Uncle Sam, though. In Tennessee, the Achievement School District is again weathering attacks from local lawmakers and activists—and while the criticism is still emanating
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In early December, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) released its 2015 State Teacher Policy Yearbook, which examines the laws and regulations governing state teacher policy. NCTQ evaluated states in five policy areas, each of which contained sub-goals such as delivering well-prepared teachers, expanding the teaching pool, and identifying effective teachers. States were evaluated on each dimension and given a grade for each policy area. The five policy area grades were then rolled into one state grade.

In terms of overall grades, Ohio did fairly well, earning a B-minus. (The top-performing state was Florida with a B+, while the lowest performer was Montana with an F.) Ohio received the same grade in 2013, but earlier overall grades (a C-plus in 2011 and a D-plus in 2009) were far less impressive, and the results point to general improvement. The Buckeye State earned its highest area grade, a solid B, in expanding the teacher pool through efforts to increase teaching opportunities with flexible and rigorous pathways. But the state earned its lowest grade (a C-minus) for delivering well-prepared teachers—mostly due to its failure to require prospective elementary, secondary science, secondary social studies, and special education teachers to pass rigorous content...

A recent Akron Beacon Journal headline grabbed my attention, and not in a good way: “Ohio tells federal investigators that charter schools are getting better, but evidence isn’t convincing.” It’s among the latest in a string of news stories about Ohio’s win of a federal $71 million Charter School Program (CSP) grant—and, more distressingly, its possible loss of said grant.

The article uses the current federal investigation of the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) as the hook (“Oh look! An article about that $71 million grant—I wonder what the status is.”), then launches into a discussion about the audit results from high-profile blow-up Next Frontier Academy and Ohio’s alleged inability to track misspent dollars. Another editorial from ABJ with an equally cynical title (“Ohio and its legacy of careless charter schools”) better explains the apparent linkage between the two topics: “Because of the shabby record-keeping, auditors could not reach firm conclusions about school enrollment and finances. Thus, conveniently enough, the Next Frontier story could not be included in the information sent to federal investigators. Next Frontier wasn’t alone, the records of other charter schools in similar disarray. That left the state in position to offer a rosier...

As 2015 was coming to a close, I compiled a list of my fifty favorite reads of the year. You can find them all here.

Though most are article- or report-length, the subjects are all over the map. In total, they offer a glimpse of the big happenings of 2015 and—though this wasn’t my initial intention—show where my mind was during this eventful year. Here’s a smattering.

The end of the year was dominated by ESSA. The New York Times captured the historical importance of the new law. Rick Hess explained why it was a major conservative victory, and Politics K–12 detailed how it undermined Arne Duncan’s legacyChad Aldeman and Conor Williams wrote separately about why the Left should be unhappy. (I’ll have a follow-up piece shortly focused exclusively on ESSA reporting and analysis.)

But 2015 also had lots of great non-ESSA edu-writing. Marty West penned a smart piece on Uncle Sam’s role in innovation, and Joanne Weiss looked back on Race to the Top. Sara Mead explained early-childhood education in New Orleans, Kathleen Porter-Magee wrote about the Catholic-school reawakening, and The Economist reported on the heartening story of private-schools outside of the US serving low-income kids.

There were...

In its 2015 state policy analysis, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) found that fourteen states have seen positive charter policy changes since the organization’s inaugural report last year. These wide-ranging improvements demonstrate the value of sizing up a state’s legal framework, diagnosing its structural problems, comparing it to peers, and using that information to press policymakers for change. In other words, rankings like this—and other seemingly wonky law and policy reviews—may actually pave the way for real improvements.

NACSA analyzed and ranked every state with a charter law (forty-three, plus the District of Columbia) against eight policy recommendations meant to ensure a baseline of authorizer quality and charter school accountability: 1) Can schools select from at least two authorizers? 2) Does the state require authorizers to meet endorsed standards (like NACSA’s)? 3) Does the state evaluate its authorizers? 4) Do poor authorizers face sanctions? 5) Do authorizers publish annual performance reports on schools? 6) Is every charter bound by a contract that outlines performance expectations? 7) Are there strong non-renewal standards, and can authorizers effectively close poor performers? 8) Does the state have an automatic closure law on the books?

Additionally, the report offers...

Fifty years ago, Catholic schools educated 5.6 million children in thirteen thousand schools across America. Perhaps the most depressing passage of Catholic School Renaissance—a new book by Andy Smarick and Kelly Robson aimed at philanthropists—is found on pages twelve and thirteen, which present inglorious charts detailing the deterioration of Catholic schools and their enrollment. Though that decline is not presently as drastic as it was during the 60s and 70s, it’s easy to despair over the state of one of most successful learning mechanisms in U.S. history.

Luckily, the next hundred pages explain what ought to be done to save these national assets. Smarick and Robson believe that our growing national acceptance of school choice provides a climate ripe for a Catholic comeback—and donors have the biggest role to play in bringing about the renaissance. “The question is no longer whether Catholic schools should be run differently; it’s about how,” they argue. The book explains how promising models should be scaled and offers a few viable solutions to the biggest problems plaguing the sector (teacher recruitment and retention chief among them). In a useful appendix, it lists dozens of opportunities for donors to shape systems via marketing, data reporting, and...

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