Charters & Choice

For months, leaders from LAUSD and the UTLA have
stalled within a deep tunnel of negotiations, unable to reach consensus on,
well, anything. This week, light broke at the end of that dark passageway: Los
Angeles Superintendent John Deasy and the newly elected union president, Warren
Fletcher, have reached a partial agreement. And it’s an exciting one: Under the
new pact, district schools could exercise charter-like autonomy over hiring,
curriculum, and work conditions. If a school wants to diverge from current norms
by, say, altering its salary structure or length of day, neither union nor
district officials can object. (Take note of this innovative approach for
combating union strong-arming: Pitch the reforms to teachers as a respite from
meddling district policies, not just cumbersome
union ones.) So, what catalyzed this union change of heart? Pressure from
charter schools—which hold a 10 percent market share of L.A.’s student
enrollment. According to Fletcher, “There’s been a lot of focus on
out-of-district resources and answers. This is the beginning of moving back to
some semblance of balance.” Before the agreement becomes official, though, it
must be ratified by union membership. Here’s hoping; what a worthy experiment
that would be.

Individual
Los Angeles Schools Gain New Autonomy
,” by Howard Blume, Los Angeles
Times,
November 29, 2011.

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blueprint photo

Check the original charter-school blueprint.
Specs say "choice for all."
Photo by Will Scullin

As originally conceived twenty years ago, charter
schools were to offer alternatives to the traditional public-school model—maybe
Betsy wants a school that focuses more on drama than the football team or Davey
wants one that prioritizes STEM learning. Somewhere along the way, however,
many states restricted charters to “high need” communities awash in disadvantaged
kids and failing schools. As a result, 70
percent of charter students
are on free or reduced-price lunch, and most charters
are urban. But that’s starting to change. Greater numbers of suburban students
are venturing into the halls of charter schools—central Ohio alone had more
than 10,000 suburban and rural students attend charter schools last
year—sparking what Fordham’s Terry Ryan dubbed a “second generation” of
charters. And it couldn’t come fast enough. Like their urban counterparts,
kiddos in suburbia deserve the ability to choose schools that are right for
them. Just ask any of the original architects of the charter theory.

Charter schools lure suburban kids, too,” by Jennifer Smith
Richards, The Columbus Dispatch, November 27, 2011.

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WILD AND WACKY POLITICAL BATTLES

Since their inception in 1997, charter schools have been at the
center of some of the most politically contentious debates about
education in Ohio. The past year offered yet another example of charter
school controversy, but this time with a twist. The 2010 elections were
very good for Buckeye State Republicans, with John Kasich winning the
governor’s race (replacing Ted Strickland who had been a charter adversary throughout his four-year term). Republicans also took control of the House while expanding their majority in the Senate.

Almost immediately GOP lawmakers set out to make the Buckeye State
more inviting to charter schools. Governor Kasich’s budget proposals in House Bill (HB) 153
offered a solid plan for not only increasing the number of charters in
Ohio but improving their quality. Crucial elements included encouraging
successful operators to clone good schools; leaning hard on authorizers
to fix or close failing schools and banning the replication of failure;
placing schools’ ostensibly independent governing boards in clear charge
of any outside organizations that they engaged to run their education
programs; creating professional and ethical norms for all parties;
insisting on transparency around academics, governance, and finances;
channeling fair funding into successful schools; and introducing best
practices and expert advice into every step of the process. This was a
vision that excited us and many others in Ohio and beyond because it
...

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The 2010 elections were good for Republicans in Ohio, who have traditionally supported the expansion of charter schools (and choice broadly). We were hopeful as lawmakers and the governor set about removing caps on charter schools, lifting the e-school moratorium, and suggesting other legislative changes that would improve charter quality and accountability. However, we were disheartened when during the budget cycle, the Ohio House proposed several changes that would have been insidious to the charter movement in the Buckeye State, such as: neutering governing boards and authorizers of their oversight responsibilities; exempting charter schools from compliance with most of the state’s education laws and rules; and allowing operators to essentially run schools without an authorizing entity to hold them accountable.

Luckily, the charter community in Ohio and nationally stood firmly against these proposals and was united in the need for better accountability and quality (and not just growth for growth’s sake). This resulted in a rejection of the House’s provisions as well as a new requirement holding charter authorizers accountable (which we explain in the report). Fordham schools showed more academic growth than any of the state’s large authorizers, but we still realize there’s more work to do. Improvement is a continual process and we won’t hide from that challenge.

The report describes these developments over the year, and also delineates how our schools fared in terms of achievement, growth, and their contractual obligations. It provides achievement comparisons to other charters in Ohio’s Urban 8 cities and their home district...

Andrew Boy
Founder and executive director of Columbus Collegiate Academy

Guest blogger Andrew Boy is the founder and executive director of Columbus Collegiate Academy (CCA), a Fordham-authorized middle school serving students in grades six through eight.

As school levies fail across central Ohio, I am concerned and
disappointed to see so many school districts quickly threaten to reduce
the quality of our children’s education. Providing an excellent
education for our children may be the single most important thing we
can do as responsible citizens.

To
give hope to our children in tough economic times, we must learn to do
more with less. When I read the statement made by Westerville’s
school-board president, “We’ll be looking at state-minimum
requirements,” I lost confidence in the leadership of the district in
which I live. As the operator of the Columbus Collegiate Academy, a
charter school on the Near East Side, I run a school on a shoestring
budget. Unlike traditional district schools, we don’t have access to
local property-tax dollars.

When I see levies on the ballot, I can only dream about what we
could do for our students, 94 percent of whom are minorities and 88
percent of whom are economically disadvantaged, with additional
revenue. Although it is unlikely we ever will receive public revenue at
the same level as others, we would never settle for providing our
students with “state-minimum requirements.”

Instead of slighting our students with the bare minimum, we...

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Fordham has been involved in the arena of school choice in Ohio at
virtually every level for the past decade, except that of a parent. We authorize charter schools,
we have created charter school support organizations and helped birth
other choice-support entities, we’ve fought for choice policies in the
legislature, and Terry and Checker literally wrote the book
on what we think are the lessons from all this work. Issues of school
choice and the quality (or not) of urban schools have been a big part of
my professional life the last five years. Now, they are front and
center in my personal life, too.

I live in the Columbus City School district (CCS). My husband and I bought our home years before we had decided whether
we wanted to have children, let alone where we’d want to raise them and
send them to school. Fast forward about a decade: our son will be a
kindergartner next year and we find ourselves navigating urban school
choice firsthand.

We look forward to continuing to live in the city of Columbus and
sending our son to a district school next year. We love the diversity
and energy of our neighborhood, and we greatly value the close proximity
of our home to downtown and the excellent community programming at
nearby Ohio State University, among the many other reasons we live where
we do. And,...

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Will the move toward virtual and “blended learning” schools in American education repeat the mistakes of the charter-school movement, or will it learn from them?

Try this thought experiment: How much more successful might U.S. charter schools look today if, at the beginning of the charter movement two decades ago, proponents had spent the time and effort to consider what policies and supports would be needed to ensure its quality, freedom, rules and resources over the long term? What mistakes might have been avoided? Damaging scandals forestalled? Missed opportunities seized?

We can’t go back in time for charters but we can be smarter about the next major phase of education reform and innovation: taking high-quality virtual and blended schools to scale—and to educational success. To this end, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, with the support of the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation, has commissioned five deep-thought papers that, together, address the thorniest policy issues surrounding digital learning. The goal is to boost the prospects for successful online learning (both substantively and politically) over the long run.

In "School Finance in the Digital-Learning Era", Paul T. Hill zeroes in on the policy area most in need of reform if digital learning is to succeed: funding. “Our system doesn’t fund schools, and certainly doesn’t fund students,” he writes in “School Finance in the Digital-Learning Era.” “Yet to encourage development and improvement of technology-based methods, we must find ways for public dollars to do just that—and to follow kids to online providers...

Education Next

Hope Against HopeEver since Hurricane Katrina, the eyes of education reform proponents and opponents have been on New Orleans, site of one of the most dramatic public school overhauls in American history. Veteran journalist Sarah Carr has been there through the ups and downs, reporting on the reforms for the Times-Picayune. Now she tells the story in her book debut, Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America’s Children.

In this installment of the Education Next book club, host Mike Petrilli talks with Sarah about the successes and failures of New Orleans-style reform, and what it means for the rest of the country.

Additional installments of the Ed Next Book Club podcast can be heard here.

This piece originally appeared on the Ed Next blog.

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