Charters & Choice

I'll hand it to Michael Winerip. This morning he takes on one of the charter movement's fiercest competitors, Eva Moskowitz; rather, he finds a kid who he implies got dumped by one of Moskowitz's schools and through him attempts to show charters as cherry-pickers.? But he's too good a reporter and what he ends up doing is showing us why we need more choice and charters, not less and fewer.

Indeed, young Matthew Sprowl, ?disruptive and easily distracted,? seems to be the poster child for what charter critics have long said is the unfair advantage that charters have over their traditional school counterparts: charters don't have to take all kids, regular schools do. In his third week of kindergarten at Moskowitz's Harlem Success Academy 3, Matthew was suspended for three days, writes Winerip, for ?bothering other children.? The problems escalated and, with help from Harlem Success, Matthew soon found a regular public school, where he was later diagnosed as having ?attention disorder? and, over the last three years, ?has thrived.?

It's an interesting story and Winerip tells it well ? too well to make his argument against charters stick. He gives Moskowitz schools their due, pointing out that her ?students earn top honors.? ?Typically, that's the setup for the skimming trap. ?It didn't work -- Success 3 just has too many Special Ed and English Language Learners to make the charge stick.? Winerip makes another mistake (for his argument's point of view) in allowing Moskowitz assistant Jenny...

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Today's Times (unless you read it online yesterday or the day before), covers some fertile educational ground in three important arenas.

A Little Shakespeare in Welding Class, Please! The deep recession has exposed a few education ribs in the nation's torso the last couple of years. And Motoko Rich has an excellent report about the impact budget cutbacks are having on the technical and trade schools.

The administration has proposed a 20 percent reduction in its fiscal 2012 budgdet for career and technical education, to a little more than $1 billion, even as it seeks to increase overall education funding by 11 percent.

The silver lining ? and best part of the story -- is toward the end, when Rich addresses the problem, as she writes, that ?the skills that employers most frequently say are in shortest supply are critical thinking, the ability to work in teams and communication, not specialized training.? ??She cites a Pioneer Institute study pointing out that manuals for many of these trade jobs, like plumbing and auto mechanics, require Grade 14 reading level and that more technical schools are realizing that even kids destined for blue-collar and busted-knuckle jobs should know how to read and write.

On the Avenue Seeing Benno Schmidt with hard-hat in hand does not mean that the former president of Yale is opening a trade school ? especially when he's standing next to education entrepreneur Chris Whittle and media executive Alan Greenberg.? What...

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Democracy Prep is expanding in a novel way next school year ? by taking over a failing charter school at its authorizer's behest. SUNY was set to deny Harlem Day Charter School's charter but instead asked for proposals to turn the school around. Democracy Prep stepped up.

It's a huge risk. By and large, turnarounds are unsuccessful. For Democracy Prep, which had the city's highest progress report score for a middle school last year, this would be its first attempt at a turnaround. In New York City, the Bloomberg administration has relied largely on shutting failing schools down and re-starting from scratch, a method that critics say disperses the neediest children and destabilizes communities. Under Mr. Lambert's plan, the students stay put, and the management and board are wiped out.

It's great to see "acquisitions" like this one. Democracy Prep is a solid performer, and this gives them a new school complete with kids, parent and community recognition, and some momentum. Clearly it comes with challenges as well, however, with more than 40% of their kids being held back to repeat a grade. The question this raises for me is, why do we wait to talk about these kinds of takeovers until a school is failing?

Entrepreneurs, charter school founders among them, start businesses for many reasons. Not all of them are great long-term managers. Instead, what the most successful of them have is a keen sense of the needs of customers and stakeholders and the ability...

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A legislative conference committee has reported out its version of Ohio's next operating budget.?? The Senate and House are expected to approve the committee's report today and tomorrow, with Governor Kasich signing it into law Thursday.??

Details are still emerging, but at first glance education reformers can declare at least a few victories from this battle, especially when it comes to issues of teacher effectiveness.?? Included in the budget are provisions requiring that:

-?????????????????? By 2013-14 all Ohio school districts must implement a rigorous, multiple-measure teacher evaluation system that is based 50 percent on student performance data;

-?????????????????? Schools participating in Race to the Top must develop a merit-pay system for teachers based in part on that evaluation (this is optional for non-participating districts);

-?????????????????? Seniority is no longer the primary determiner of teacher lay-offs in the Buckeye State and may only be used as a tie-breaker when all other factors are equal.

The conference committee reportedly upheld most of the Senate's smart charter-school provisions, lifted restrictions on the start-up of new charter schools, and expanded eligibility and availability of the EdChoice voucher program.?? The committee also added new education policy language, including a provision giving Cleveland mayor (who has control over that city's school district) the ability to revoke collective bargaining rights of employees in his district's conversion charter schools.

We'll be following the budget developments closely this week. Follow us here on Flypaper or Twitter (@OhioGadfly) for...

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As if the teachers unions need another reason to hate charter schools, here's one: The finding, from a new Fordham Institute report, that when given a chance to opt out of state pension systems, many charter schools take it. Furthermore, a fair number of these charters replace traditional pensions with nothing at all.

Why is this such a big deal? It's not just that unions will worry that charter schools are mistreating their teachers. More fundamentally, if charter schools continue to multiply, and they are allowed to opt out of state retirement systems, those systems will collapse under their own weight--an outcome the unions will fight to the death.

First some background. The new Fordham study, by Michael Podgursky and Amanda Olberg, examines six large states where charters are allowed to opt out of the traditional pension system. In a few of these states, including California and Louisiana, most charters stay in the system. (That's largely because teachers in those states don't participate in Social Security; see the report for an explanation about that.) But in other states, including Arizona and Florida, most charters bolt. Typically they offer a 401(k) or 403(b) instead, but almost one-quarter offer either no pension or a plan without an employer match.

On this latter point, Rick Kahlenberg of the Century Fund hit the charter movement hard. In a Flypaper forum (that also...

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In this "Ed Short" from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Amanda Olberg and Michael Podgursky examine how public charter schools handle pensions for their teachers. Some states give these schools the freedom to opt out of the traditional teacher-pension system; when given that option, how many charter schools take it? Olberg and Podgursky examine data from six charter-heavy states and find that charter participation rates in traditional pension systems vary greatly—from over 90 percent in California to less than one out of every four charters in Florida. As for what happens when schools choose not to participate in state pension plans, the authors find that they most often provide their teachers with defined-contribution plans (401(k) or 403(b)) with employer matches similar to those for private-sector professionals. But some opt-out charters offer no alternative retirement plans for their teachers (18 percent in Florida, 24 percent in Arizona).

Guest Blogger

Today, Fordham released our latest, "Charting a New Course to Retirement: How Charter Schools Handle Teacher Pensions." Authors Amanda Olberg and Michael Podgursky explain the report's findings here.

In the wake of the economic downturn, American public schools face serious, long-term fiscal challenges. Of them, rising pension costs are a particular concern. Yet school districts have no mechanisms for reining in these costs; almost all districts are tethered by statute to state pension systems (or, sometimes, their own local pension systems). It turns out, though, that some states allow their public charter schools to opt out of those systems. How they handle this opportunity bears scrutiny?and may suggest some lessons for the larger public-education system.

Nationally, teacher compensation comprises 55 percent of current expenditures in K-12 education. (That figure rises to 81 percent when all school staff are included.) A large and growing share of these costs goes to help fund retirement benefits. Between 2004 and 2010, for example, district pension costs (not counting retiree health insurance) increased from 12 percent to over 15 percent of salaries. A recent report from the Pew Center on the States estimated that unfunded public employee pension liabilities in the U.S. grew to $1.26 trillion during the 2009 fiscal year; other studies estimate that the true liability is even higher. Even as states attempt to pay down this liability, pension...

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