Charters & Choice

In the ongoing saga of Pennsylvania’s Chester Upland School
District, revisionist historians are growing louder, asserting that
“privatization” and the emergence of the Keystone State’s largest charter
school have hastened the district’s much-publicized and impending death. First,
a quick review: The school district says it’s broke; Gov. Tom Corbett has
promised aid, but without a clear source; now the New York Times has
pointed a finger at the Chester Community Charter School, which claims it’s
owed nearly $7 million by the district and the state. Enrollment at the charter
has risen to 45 percent of the district’s students, and its presence has led
commentators to declare that school choice is partly to blame for Chester
Upland’s financial woes. Unfortunately for critics (including but by no means
limited to the NEA), the problems at Chester Upland preceded the launch of the
charter by several years, and many entities, public and private, have gotten
their hands dirty; the state had to take over the district’s finances between
1994 and 2010, Edison Schools tried and failed to turn the district around, and
the board lost about $18 million in revenue between 2010 and 2011 alone. It
might be politically expedient to accuse charter operators of treating
Chester’s public education as “a treasure chest ripe for plunder,” but that miscasts
a charter that has successfully scaled up to educate nearly...

  • A
    suburban Virginia
    district has irked some parents by taking them to court over their children’s
    tardiness. Parent involvement is well and good, but districts will find
    that charging parents with misdemeanors may not foster the kind of engagement
    they were shooting for.
  • As
    Terry noted, on Monday Cleveland's
    mayor announced an ambitious plan to overhaul the city's schools by
    partnering with high performing charters, granting district schools greater
    flexibility, and changing rules over teacher layoffs and pay. First Indianapolis, then Detroit,
    now Cleveland;
    the Rust Belt is finally recognizing that economic revitalization starts
    in city classrooms. As Ohio Governor John Kasich said in Tuesday’s State
    of the State address, “We can change urban education in Ohio and in
    America. That is worth fighting for.”
  • The
    Florida Senate education committee approved a bill requiring school
    districts to share their construction and maintenance funding with
    charter schools
    . Districts can grump all they want, but the fact
    remains that charters have long been denied a crucial part of the funding
    pie; Gadfly hopes they will finally get their just desserts.
  • Connecticut's
    governor waded into the midst
    of the charter school fight this week
    , calling for more charters with
    increased funding, and asking local districts to chip in with the expense.
    Districts
    cranky over the cost
    need to realize that more options
  • ...

Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit cover

Earlier this week, the Koret Task
Force of Stanford’s Hoover Institution, which I have the privilege of chairing,
issued a bold proposal (primarily crafted by Russ Whitehurst) for totally
rebooting the federal role in primary-secondary education.

Washington insiders will, of course, dismiss it as “politically
unrealistic” precisely because it is so sweeping and radical. Maybe it will
turn out to be. But with ESEA reauthorization in stalemate, the parties at
loggerheads, and a total breakdown of the former “consensus” painfully visible,
perhaps a sweeping, radical reboot is precisely what is most needed. States
that find this reboot appealing can follow the Task Force’s proposal. States
that prefer some version of the status quo may stick with it.

The Task Force begins by explaining why neither top-down
accountability (à la NCLB) nor total devolution of authority to states and
districts can rekindle American education and boost student achievement. Both
have been tried—and both have been found sorely wanting.

What to do instead? The Task Force
offers a very different approach grounded on two time-honored (and well-proven)
American principles: federalism and choice.

But federalism doesn’t mean
traditional “local control,” because so many school districts are captives of
special interests. Rather, “vibrant, open competition among the providers of
education services for students and the funds that accompany them...

In the emotionally charged story of the Chester Upland
School District in Pennsylvania, several observers have seen
the bogeyman with great clarity. Critics from Dennis
Van Roekel
to Valerie
Strauss
have set aside the history of financial troubles that took root in
the district a generation ago and have asserted that “privatization” and the
emergence of the Keystone State’s largest charter school have quickened the
district’s pending death.

No storybook ending is imminent. The school district says
it’s broke and can’t pay its teachers past the end of the month. Gov. Tom
Corbett has assured students they will be able to finish the year at Chester
Upland, but no one knows where the money is coming from. And the New York Times has identified
another problem
: the Chester
Community Charter
School, which claims it’s
owed nearly $7 million in past-due payments from the district and the state.

One shouldn’t expect a state judiciary to demand budget cuts from the charter
before it can expect to get paid the money it’s owed.

Chester
Community Charter
School has grown to
enroll 45 percent of the district’s students, and its presence has led
commentators to declare that the school choice policies of the Corbett
administration, and the governor’s relationship with the charter school owners,
are to blame for Chester Upland’s financial woes. That’s to be expected. But
one...

Greater collaboration between school districts and charter
schools is worthwhile so long as the one-size-fits-all approach of a school
board doesn’t dampen the unique characteristics of a charter. Washington D.C.
would seem to have fertile ground for collaboration, done right, given that
D.C. has built a “portfolio” approach to public education in which charters
claim 40 percent of the public school enrollment. But the excitement over a new
report urging the district and charter boards to work together to increase the
supply of high-performing schools can obscure the elements that made D.C. a
proving ground for school choice.

Will the one-size-fits-all approach of a school
board dampen the unique characteristics of a charter?

The report from Midwestern-based
consultant IFF
to D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray identifies a need to invest in
more high-performing schools in a cluster of underserved neighborhoods, and it
suggests that D.C.
Public Schools and the
Public Charter School Board can play an equal and complementary role in
fulfilling the task. Despite the release of creative energy in the District in
the last several years, just 1 of 3 public school students is enrolled in what
IFF labels the highest-performing of four “tiers” of schools. To turn that
around, the report recommends filling the capacity in the top tier, investing
in the second and third tiers, and upending or closing the bottom dwellers.

IFF has,...

One critique of school vouchers and tax credit scholarships
that persists is that they direct public money to private schools that
cherry-pick the best students, even if the vouchers target a low-income
population. Now the
redefinED blog has given us a sneak peek
into a soon-to-be-published study
that examines which students select a means-tested private school option, and
why.

Cassandra Hart, an education professor at the University of California,
Davis, conducted
a study of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship
for low-income students to
take a deeper look at the characteristics of the participants and the public
schools they left. With help from Northwestern
University economist
David Figlio, Hart finds that scholarship recipients not only are among the
lowest performing students who are economically disadvantaged, they came from
public schools that are, she writes, “troubled along a number of dimensions.” (Full disclosure: From 2009 to 2011, I helped
to develop the policy and communications initiatives for the nonprofit that
administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship
.)

Significantly, Hart says the students might have been less
likely to use the voucher if they had better public school options to begin
with: “Where they have a greater ability to exercise public choice, they are
more likely to do so even if they are also offered a private school voucher.”

As for the cherry-picking, the students who enrolled in
private schools on the...

Pedro Noguera’s departure from the State University of New
York charter board isn’t entirely surprising, but it sends another mixed signal
from a self-professed supporter of charter schools who is straining to contain
their expansion.

Just four months ago, Noguera
embraced the complexity of his position
while enduring the jeers of a protest
movement with whom he sorely wanted to find common ground. “I think we need
ways to change and improve our schools, and if charters become one means to do
that, I support it,” he once said. On Wednesday, he
told The New York Times
that the
SUNY board has harbored a political agenda to increase the number of charter
schools and has ultimately hastened inequities between charter and traditional
schools.

Noguera has muddied a debate painfully in need of clarity.

Noguera didn’t contradict his earlier statements as much as
he deserted the complexity of his convictions all too quickly. In doing so, he
has muddied a debate painfully in need of clarity. His resignation highlights
how support for charter school initiatives can weaken when advocates fail to
agree on why school choice has value to begin with.

Similarly, Jay Mathews of the Washington Post, another self-professed charter school supporter,
twisted this knot further by
disparaging a consultant’s report for D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray
that
called for, among other things, investing in seats at higher performing...

MBAs are taking on an increasingly visible role in
traditional school districts around the country. Large districts are
multi-billion dollar enterprises, the argument goes, and business-minded people
bring critical skills for managing those organizations efficiently. Many
passionate ed-reformer MBAs believe the b-school set can help combat the
bureaucracy and mismanagement that hurt districts' effectiveness. As a fellow
business school graduate, I'm not so sure.

My first, perhaps obvious, objection is that big
organizations with distinctive professional cultures are incredibly hard to
turn around. This is especially true if you're trying to effect change from the
middle management and special-projects role where many new MBAs find
themselves. Traditional school districts need major changes to their business
models to be on financially sustainable ground and poised to deliver services
in a coming era of increased parental choice and (I hope!) decoupled services.
That's primarily a job for school boards and superintendents.

The problem with the "MBAs to the
rescue" strategy is the conceit that business-school types are
somehow inherently efficiency-minded.

The fundamental problem with the "MBAs to the
rescue" strategy, however, is the conceit that business-school types are
somehow inherently efficiency-minded. Ludwig
von Mises pointed out
that what he called "commercial-mindedness"
comes from the incentives inherent in running a business--if you fail, it
will fail, and with it will go your livelihood. It's a response to incentives,
and it...

In its fourth
annual report
, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers
offers a snapshot of the nation’s charter sponsors, capturing their size, their
shape, and how many schools they open and shutter. For example, the majority of
the nation’s authorizers are local education agencies (52 percent), and an even
greater percentage are small (86 percent authorized fewer than six schools). More
interestingly, charter-closure rates are on the decline. Just 6.2 percent of
the nation’s charter schools up for renewal were shuttered (or non-renewed) in
2010-11, down from 8.8 percent the year before and 12.6 percent in 2008-09.
Unfortunately, NACSA doesn’t link these stats to performance data, meaning that
we can’t know if this trend indicates increased quality of charters, leniency
of authorizers, or political pressures to keep them open. Digging further,
NACSA reports that nonprofit authorizers (like Fordham) represent the smallest
percentage of those that oversee charter schools but employ the most of NACSA’s
own dozen “essential
practices
.” They’ve also closed more schools, on average, than other types
of authorizers (including districts, institutions of higher ed, and independent
chartering boards). Likewise, authorizers with a larger portfolio of schools
were more likely to implement NACSA’s guidelines. Back in the fall, Andy
Rotherham argued
that we need to embrace risk-taking and consider that
establishing a vibrant charter sector means occasionally allowing the creation
of schools that turn...

Lisa Duty

One could argue that 2011 was the
year of “digital learning” in Ohio and across the nation. In September, the
White House announced its “Digital Promise” campaign, while a number of states
have been embracing initiatives and campaigns in this realm, aided and
encouraged by national groups like the Digital Learning Council and the
Foundation for Excellence in Education. Ohio’s biennial budget launched the
Ohio Digital Learning Task Force and charged it with ensuring that the state’s
“legislative environment is conducive to and supportive of the educators and
digital innovators at the heart of this transformation.”

Our two organizations –
KnowledgeWorks and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute – are committed to seeing
Ohio become a leader in the implementation of digital learning opportunities
for the state’s 1.8 million students. Ohio now stands at an important
crossroads and 2012 could be a pivotal year on whether we move forward in the
digital learning environment.

Our state has been a path-breaker
when it comes to availability of full-time e-school options that leverage
technology in learning. In fact, if all 33,000 children currently enrolled in
Ohio e-schools were in one school district they would comprise the state’s third-largest
district, just behind Columbus and Cleveland. Despite such numbers, Ohio has
yet to harness fully the potential of digital learning for all students. And,
given that digital learning can yield improvements in student achievement...

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