Charters & Choice

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...

This is the eleventh 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 Bedrick, and Adam Peshek.

Nevada’s new education savings account program is big news. It’s a “universal” program, meaning that any parent whose child attends a neighborhood public school can opt out of that school and instead receive access to a pot of funds that can go toward a variety of schooling services—online courses, private school, homeschool curricula etc. Unlike more limited voucher programs with restricted funds (some could only be used by poor students or those with disabilities, and most could only be used for private school tuition), Nevada’s decision to make education funds available to everyone is a potential game-changer for school choice. And it resurrects the viability of school vouchers, which have been relegated to the policy fringe for the past decade.

For years, voucher advocates and economists argued that the...

Adam Peshek

This is the tenth 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. Burke, and Jason Bedrick.

Believe the hype. The creation of a universal education savings account (ESA) program in Nevada is the most momentous event in the history of the school choice movement. Soon, parents of all K–12 public school students in the state will have the ability to direct their children’s state education funds to the schools, programs, courses, and services of their choice. Along with Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee, nearly one million students will be eligible for an ESA in 2016. Despite their massive promise, education savings accounts require a much-needed evolution in the role of the state in education. 

The challenges in implementing ESA programs will be twofold. The first will be similar to any startup: securing funds, setting up infrastructure, creating processes and workflows, etc. The second set may prove to...

Jason Bedrick

This is the ninth 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 Kingsland, and Lindsey M. Burke.

Earlier this month, Governor Brian Sandoval signed into law the nation’s first nearly universal education savings account (ESA) program. Education reformers are right to be excited, but now comes the hard part: resisting the temptation to overregulate.

At the core of the market-based approach is a deep epistemological modesty. We do not know the best way to educate students, or even if there is a “best” way. There is a legitimate diversity of views regarding what students should know and how to teach them, and different children have different learning needs.

There is no perfect system. All our institutions are constructed from the crooked timber of humanity. Ultimately, there will be failures in the private sector, just as there are in the public. Education providers will try new things only to discover that they...

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