Charters & Choice

and Adam Emerson

It’s hard to get past the New York Times’s animus toward anything “private” or profit-seeking in the realm of K-12 education, particularly when investigative reporter Stephanie Saul applies her own biased and acidic pen to the topic. And Tuesday’s interminable “expose” of state-level tax-credit scholarship programs certainly deepens one’s impression that the writer (and, presumably, her editors) is in love with anything that smacks of “public dollars” or “public schools” and at war with anything that might be seen as diverting even a penny from state coffers into the hands of parents to educate their kids at schools of their choice. Never mind whether the public schools they are exiting are good or bad, nor whether the dollars being spent by those schools are well targeted on high-quality instruction or frittered away on over-generous benefits for underemployed custodians and their retired pals.

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Dollars Roll
Tax-credit scholarship programs must be well designed and monitored or more "exposes" over how dollars are distributed will follow.
Photo by Images Money.

A few studies in the early-to-mid aughts examined the impact of charters on district schools. Most found that the introduction of charter competition led to few changes in district behavior. Others disagreed. This new one by Hiren Nisar (of Abt Associates) re-examines that line of inquiry—but with a twist: Using Milwaukee data, Nisar asks whether district-run charters have more or less impact on the academic performance of traditional public-school students than charters run by other authorizers. (In Milwaukee, this means the city or the local state university.) His study—which attempts to control for student self-selection and ability, school-level factors, and other choice programs (i.e., Milwaukee’s long-running voucher program)—includes roughly forty charters (twenty-three sponsored by MPS and seventeen by others) and utilizes longitudinal, student-level achievement data (for grades three through eight) from 2000-01 to 2008-09. Now to the findings: First, non-district-sponsored charter schools have significant positive impacts on district students’ math and reading achievement, but only in math is that effect statistically different from the impact of district-sponsored charters. This is common-sensical enough. Since district-sponsored schools are still part of the district, with funding that remains within district boundaries, these entities likely feel...

Reformers frequently point out that charters are underfunded. They also laud charters that post strong student-achievement scores despite their lean budgets. But is this the norm? Do charter schools ipso facto achieve great results with less funding than traditional schools? As spending data—for charters and districts alike—are generally opaque, there is no clear-cut answer. This study from the NEPC (Kevin Wellner’s pro-union shop) dug into financial data of large charter-management organizations (CMOs) in three states and found a mixed bag: A few successful charter networks spend more than district schools, thanks to aggressive fundraising. Notably, KIPP schools in New York City spend about $4,300 more per pupil than nearby district schools. But many other charters spend far less. Those in Ohio, for example, spend less across the board than district schools in the same city. These data will spur conversation, but be wary of the NEPC’s conclusions, including that the “no excuses” charter model may not be worth its cost or that these charters (and their funding streams) bring up “equity concerns” as they create schools that are overfunded compared to their district counterparts. (Never mind that a swath of charters in this study is funded far below district levels.)...

The Ohio Education Association (OEA) voted this month to launch an effort to recruit employees of Ohio’s 350-plus charter schools as union members. According to Ohio Department of Education data the state’s charters employ about 10,500 educators and 5,400 of these are classroom teachers. Currently there are no unionized start-up charter schools in Ohio, but there are some conversion district charter schools that have unionized teachers. Nationally, the Center on Reinventing Public Education reports that “about 12 percent of all charter schools have bargaining agreements.”

It is clear why the OEA and the Ohio Federation of Teachers (OFT) would want to recruit charter teachers to their ranks. Unions define success in large part by the number of members they have and how much they collect in membership dues. Members and money equal influence at the statehouse, and in recent years the OEA has been losing both to charter schools. As far back at 2006, the OEA shared with its members a paper entitled “The Current State of Ohio’s Charter School Program.” In it they declared that “the charter school program in Ohio is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to ‘dismantle’ public education.” It noted that “charter schools have...

Drop-out recovery charter schools annually serve about 20 percent of Ohio’s charter students but have never been held accountable for the performance of their students. Ohio’s Senate Bill 316 (SB 316) would change this by requiring the creation and enforcement of standards for these schools. The legislation empowers Ohio’s Board of Education to set accountability standards but also leaves open what these standards will actually be. Yesterday, however, the House education committee amended the bill so that drop-out recovery schools will not be subject to the state’s automatic closure law for charter schools.

As the House considers the bill this week, lawmakers need to balance the demand for high standards for recovery charters with the unique student composition and testing challenges associated with these schools. Further, lawmakers should understand the benefit of drop-out recovery schools to the graduation rates of traditional public high schools.

First, by definition, drop-out recovery charters primarily serve dropouts or students at risk of dropping out. This fact alone requires a different perspective of what “student achievement” means—and the approaches required for student success. Because dropout recovery charters enroll mostly high-poverty and highly underperforming students, an apple-to-apples comparison of dropout recovery charter performance to traditional high...

I have spent years working in both Catholic and charter schools—I am Catholic, and a huge proponent and supporter of Catholic education. And I am deeply saddened by the loss of urban Catholic schools. And I certainly welcome a national conversation about how we can save them and have always appreciated Diane Ravitch's support for these critical schools.

Several factors began draining urban Catholic schools long before the first charters even opened.

But, to suggest, as Ravitch did in a recent post, that there is a direct, causal relationship between the proliferation of charters and the closing of urban Catholic schools seems to me to ignore the impact of several things that have been draining urban Catholic schools long before the first charters even opened.

For starters, it’s a well-known fact that the decline in the number of religious (nuns, priests, etc.) who are available to teach in Catholic schools is a major problem. Catholic schools long relied on the cheap labor that was supplied by nuns in particular, and now that schools have to increasingly rely on lay faculty, parishes that serve our most disadvantaged students have had a very difficult time making ends meet. This problem is...

“There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.”

—Colin Powell

There isn’t a Common Core supporter in the nation who hasn’t qualified her enthusiasm for what the standards can do with “if they are implemented properly.” On the other hand, I’m not sure there’s a Common Core opponent who isn’t standing in the wings, waiting for implementation to fail.

It’s only by allowing the chance for failure that standards can have any real meaning.

This is often the point in a new initiative when supporters feel most vulnerable and start scrambling to figure out how to avoid high profile failures. But, if we’ve going to succeed in this venture, we shouldn’t be trying to avoid failure, we should be looking to shine a spotlight on it and embrace it as a key element of change. It’s only by allowing the chance for failure that standards can have any real meaning.

This is something that KIPP understands intimately. KIPP has become perhaps the most well-known charter model not just because it was the first CMO to achieve national scale, but also because it’s been consistently the most...

Rick Hess made some fair points when he argued yesterday that I was wrong to “lecture” Louisiana’s Zachary Community School District for not participating in Governor Bobby Jindal’s school choice plan. It’s certainly true that suburban parents and taxpayers have legitimate concerns when they worry about opening the floodgates to disadvantaged students coming into their schools. Even in rich suburbs, resources aren’t unlimited, and working with extreme academic diversity is no easy task.

It just looks callous to reverse an effort that would have placed no financial burden on the district.

What Hess probably doesn’t know is that the situation in Zachary is more complex. There the superintendent and school board embraced a plan to take in just thirty low-income and low-achieving students from other districts under the state’s new voucher program before the school community told them to back down. A flood of new students this was not.

Zachary schools are Louisiana’s best. And Republican Governor Bobby Jindal had schools like that in mind when he pushed for legislation awarding more public and private options to low-income kids in schools rated C, D, or F. In late April, Zachary schools Superintendent Warren Drake said his district...

The Gadfly’s "grand swap"

Mike and Rick analyze Senator Alexander’s ed-for-Medicaid trade and critique America’s private-public schools. Amber delves into a startling SIG success story.

Amber's Research Minute

School Turnarounds: Evidence from the 2009 Stimulus

Folks today speak of Ray Budde, Ted Kolderie, and Al Shanker as fathers of the charter-school movement. But what of its mother? Ember Reichgott Junge, former Minnesota state senator, authored the nation’s first charter legislation. This personal account takes readers through the complete history of chartering in Minnesota, chronicling passage of the original bill in 1991, the resistance it got from unions, and subsequent amendments to the law. (Originally, there was an eight-school cap on charters in the Land of 10,000 Lakes and only licensed teachers could create and operate schools. Now, there is no charter cap and schools are granted waivers from stifling state laws.) The factual accounts make the book worthwhile but the personal anecdotes laced through the text are what make it compelling. Drawing on this history, Reichgott Junge explains some lessons that can be learned from it—and that apply to modern education-reform efforts that go well beyond charters (e.g., today’s push for digital learning). Among them: Don’t leave accountability to chance; define explicitly the reform and its goals (think of the confused perception many still hold of charter schools—and how this may have been...

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