Charters & Choice

Six days passed after Election Day before news outlets were comfortable reporting that Washington would be the 42nd state to allow charter schools. But a victory is a victory: 50.81 percent voters in the Evergreen State finally said yes to charter schools, after having said no three times before. What’s more, the measure succeeded in spite of the fact that the state’s largest county, which includes Seattle, rejected the initiative 52-48 percent. With such a polarized electorate, advocates and charter operators will have plenty of work ahead to assure voters—especially those in Seattle—that the forty schools they’re empowered to open over the next five years will add quality, innovation, and variety to a public-education landscape that has done little to accommodate a multiplicity of approaches. Given the fact that opponents to the initiative still hadn’t conceded defeat as of Monday night (there were still 237,000 votes to count statewide), and given the fact that supporters of the initiative outspent opponents by $10 million, that job won’t be easy.

"Moving Up" is The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation's charter school sponsorship accountability report for 2011-12. Through it, we hope to help readers understand the complexities of charter schools and better appreciate the hard work of the teachers, school leaders, and board members who serve not only the schools we sponsor but also the schools around the state and nation that are working to make a difference in the lives of children. This year's report features an in-depth look at the struggles of two Fordham-sponsored schools in Dayton; it is researched and written by former Dayton Daily News reporter and editor Ellen Belcher.

Andy Smarick had all but completed this swell book when he was snapped up by Chris Christie and Chris Cerf to fill the Number 2 job in the New Jersey department of education, which he did with much success over the past two years. During this time the manuscript ripened. Now, as a partner at Bellwether Education Partners and a Bernard Lee Schwartz Senior Policy Fellow here at Fordham, he’s been able (swiftly, at that) to polish and publish it. Now in print, it’s even better than the original draft thanks to Smarick’s latest experiences in the trenches.

Smarick’s starting place is the irrefutable contention that yesterday’s urban school system is broken beyond repair and needs to be replaced by something radically different if today’s children are to be soundly educated. What he would replace it with is a version of a “portfolio district” headed by a mayor-appointed “chancellor.” So far it sounds like D.C. and New York, but Smarick goes notably farther in three directions: He really does mean that all the schools in the city, not just a subset, would be run, charter-style, by...

Diverse Schools Dilemma

Modern urban parents face a quandary: Will the public schools in their walkable, socioeconomically-diverse communities provide a strong education for their kids? Mike Petrilli sheds light on this question and more in his new book, recently profiled by the Washington Post and USA Today. Through the lens of his own effort to find a school for his sons, Petrilli takes the reader through the ins and outs of making one of the most important decisions a parent can make. Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews says, “Every parent who has struggled with choosing a school should read this book. It is deep, up-to-date, blessedly short and wonderfully personal.”

The book’s official publication date is today, November 13. It is available for purchase in print, as an Amazon Kindle eBook, and as a Barnes and Noble Nook eBook....

For those who can’t get enough of all things charters and choice, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute has assembled the best commentary and analyses from Fordham’s Choice Words blog, as well as select items from Fordham’s popular (and sometimes irreverent) Education Gadfly Weekly, into a single monthly e-mail digest. The Charters & Choice Digest will guide readers through the triumphs, the quarrels, and the political foibles that accompany the growth of school choice and charter schools—and no cows will ever be sacred. Consider the contents of the inaugural issue: Election Day and the prospects of charter schools on both coasts of the country; Andy Smarick on the future of the urban school system; a charter school scandal and its implications for authorizers; and an exploration of how even “No Excuses” charters can improve. There will be essays, reviews of notable books and papers, and must-read stories on school choice nationwide. To sign up for the newsletter, visit here or send an e-mail to editor Adam Emerson, the director of the Fordham Institute’s program on parental choice....

Education reformers might be tempted to think they can claim victory in Michigan because voters overwhelmingly rejected a push from the teacher unions and others to engrave collective bargaining in the state constitution. Surely, the unions overreached here, but they won elsewhere on Election Day in the Wolverine State.

Education reform in Michigan suffered a crucial setback on Tuesday.

Or, more specifically, in Detroit, Highland Park, and Muskegon Heights—all of them school districts that have become educational wastelands and where the state had installed emergency managers to take control and (more importantly) to tear up union contracts to get the job done. In Highland Park and Muskegon Heights, that meant converting the school districts into charter-school districts. In Detroit, it meant keeping power out of the hands of a school board that one newspaper columnist said was “sauced on power and staggering with incompetence.”

This week, 53 percent of the state’s voters repealed the emergency-manager law, a victory for public-employee unions (teachers included, of course) that had spent the summer gathering signatures to put the question on the ballot. And that may unravel the boldest measures undertaken by these managers.

Detroit’s emergency chief, Roy Roberts, technically maintains...

Lots of people are weighing in on the implications of Tuesday’s election results.

  • Eduwonk Rotherham has a good piece in Time magazine lamenting Tony Bennett’s loss (my thoughts on that here), celebrating the wins for charter schools, and noting the continued strength of teachers unions when they are tested.
  • Mike comes to many of the same conclusions.  Tom Luna’s losses get his attention, as do a number of results from the Midwest.
  • Stergios also highlights the charter wins and the fallout from Bennett’s undoing (particularly regarding Common Core) and adds accountability and ESEA reauthorization to the list of affected subjects.
  • Naturally, the prolific Rick Hess has a series of posts on the subject, declaring the night a split decision for reformers.  He emphasizes the union wins and the subtle split in the reform community between conservatives and progressives.  See here for his take on Bennett’s loss and its implications for Common Core.
  • The WSJ’s Stephanie Branchero also concludes that voters are divided.  Branchero discusses Luna’s losses, the charter win in WA, and CA’s decision to spend more on schools.
  • Politics K-12 is already looking ahead, surfacing the five big issues
  • ...

Charter school supporters can claim victory in at least one high-profile ballot initiative (Georgia) and perhaps one other (Washington) but each state has a different story to tell—and lessons to teach.

In what may arguably be defined as a landslide, 59 percent of Georgia voters empowered the state to create an independent commission to authorize charter schools. But that margin of victory doesn’t even tell the whole story.

Consider Gwinnett County, the state’s largest school district, which has allowed only three charter schools within its boundaries and which filed the original lawsuit that ultimately killed Georgia’s previous independent authorizer (hence the constitutional amendment). Gwinnett superintendent Alvin Wilbanks once said that the question before voters would only empower the state to “privatize, defund, and dismantle public education.” But 63 percent of the county’s voters disagreed with him and said yes to the amendment.

While Georgia can claim a landslide, charter advocates in the Evergreen State may be getting by with a squeaker.

The state’s largest counties followed suit, including Fulton County (where 66 percent of voters said yes) and DeKalb County (64 percent). This highlights the arrogance of Wilbanks and other district superintendents, who warned that the amendment would only diminish...

The Milwaukee voucher program remains one of the most tightly-regulated school choice programs of its kind in the nation, and it deserves better than the sloppy conclusions of Diane Ravitch. In a blog post earlier this week, Ravitch noted—correctly—that tougher standards applied to the Wisconsin state test went badly for all Milwaukee students, especially voucher recipients (just 10 percent of whom were proficient in reading, compared to 15 percent of their district peers). But then she reports that legislation expanding the Milwaukee choice program to Racine absolved private schools of the requirement that they administer the state tests to their voucher-bearing students. “Therefore,” she writes, “their proficiency rate will not be known or reported.”

Wisconsin has made a lot of progress in holding its voucher program more accountable.

This is absolutely untrue. For the past few years, students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program have had to take the Wisconsin Knowledge Concepts Examination (WKCE), which is the same test administered to all public school students. When the Wisconsin legislature expanded the voucher program to Racine last year, nothing changed this requirement. In fact, test results for private schools in Racine and Milwaukee, as well as for public schools throughout...

The votes are in

Is education-funding “blackmail” fair play? Did teacher unions come out on top? Mike and Dara rehash Tuesday’s electoral results while Amber asks whether increased voucher accountability makes a difference.

Amber's Research Minute

School Choice and School Accountability: Evidence from a Private Voucher Program in Milwaukee, Wisconsin - Download PDF