Charters & Choice

Mickey Muldoon

In case it needs reiterating, Matt Damon is actually a pretty smart guy. He holds a Best Original Screenplay Oscar. He went to Harvard. He produces documentary films. He volunteers and donates to whole host of NGOs and non-profits. Sure, he's no authority of education, but he's probably the kind of person worth at least giving the benefit of the doubt.

So I was pretty disturbed by a couple of vindictive and downright insulting critiques of Damon that I found in my inbox last week, responding to his appearance at the ?Save our Schools? rally in Washington:

  • A New York Daily News headline: ?Matt Damon would deny charter school students education alternatives he had as a child.?
  • Whitney Tilson's blast email: ?Matt Damon gave a hugely dopey and hypocritical speech.?

Now, the Daily News article (all 90 words of it) takes two of Damon's unrelated comments egregiously out of context, with no substantive attribution. Moreover, as far as I can tell, Matt Damon isn't even unilaterally opposed to charters! Here's what he did say: ?It's a big question ? there are great charters and there are lousy charters ? they don't necessarily perform better than public schools.?

Even the most fervent charter advocate ? say, Whitney Tilson ? wouldn't disagree with Damon's balanced statement. So why is he ?hugely dopey??

And then, in a Gotham Schools interview, Damon actually showed a whole lot of subtlety in his understanding of the complication of...

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Guest Blogger

Which of the five states competing to be America's next Education Reform Idol did the most to advance charter schools and private-school choice during the 2011 legislative session? Consider our analysis below, and attend our event Thursday morning (8:30-10:00AM) to see key players in all five states defend their records in front of a panel of ed-reform celebrity judges?Jeanne Allen, Richard Lee Colvin, and Bruno Manno. And click here to cast your vote for Education Reform Idol.

Florida

Florida passed three major choice initiatives this year: A charter-school bill that makes it easier for high-performing charters to expand, a pair of voucher programs for students with disabilities and students in low-performing schools, and a digital-learning bill. The digital-learning bill is especially impressive, allowing students to attend publicly funded digital charters as well as requiring districts to offer part- and full-time digital options in grades K-12.

Illinois

Illinois's Charter School Quality Act allows charter schools to be approved by an independent commission instead of individual school districts. This is expected to be a boon for many rural and suburban would-be charter startups, which have faced fierce opposition from school boards in these areas, and is expected to aid those starting urban charters as well. However, the statewide charter-school cap in Illinois remains a paltry 120.

Indiana

Indiana passed a charter-school bill that has been...

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The debates surrounding Ohio’s biennial budget and other education-related legislation during the first half of 2011 were intense, and it’s no wonder. The state headed into the year facing a historic deficit, federal stimulus money was vanishing, and school districts were preparing for draconian cuts. Meanwhile, despite decades of reform efforts and increases in school funding, Ohio’s academic performance has remained largely stagnant, with barely one-third of the state’s students scoring proficient or better in either math or reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Achievement gaps continued to yawn between black and white students and between disadvantaged youngsters and their better-off peers.

 Revised considerably by the General Assembly, Governor Kasich’s budget plan (House Bill 153), a 5,000-page document that both funded the Buckeye State through fiscal year 2013 and included dozens of education-policy changes, was signed into law on June 30. The Ohio House and Senate were also engaged during the spring in passing other legislation that impacts schools.

It’s time to take stock. To what extent have Ohio’s leaders met the challenges and opportunities before them in K-12 education? What needs to happen next?

Florida deserves kudos for protecting about $55 million in funding for charter facilities in the face of budget cuts, but they're catching a lot of flak from traditional school advocates, EdWeek reports:

School district officials across Florida are bemoaning the Legislature's decision to cut traditional public schools out of?PECO?the Public Education Capital Outlay program. The state's 350 charter schools will share $55 million, while the approximately 3,000 traditional schools will go without.

"Every cent allocated for school construction went to charter schools," complained Lee Swift, a Charlotte County school board member who heads the Florida School Boards Association.

Swift said lawmakers should focus on "properly funded traditional schools" instead of pressing for more charters that drain resources from the traditional schools.

Charters are growing around the state, however, and many districts are stagnating or losing enrollment. Districts have also been flush with cash for construction in recent years even as charters have received less funding. Last year's Ball State report on charter funding inequity states that districts in Florida "encumber funds or withhold local sources from total funds available before providing charter schools with their 'fair share.'" Charters were already getting a raw deal before this measure was passed.

Florida has done the sensible thing by protecting a growing and historically underfunded sector of its education system.?Traditional public schools will continue to tap local sources for construction and maintenance, revenues that charters don't have access to. Cutting all schools equally, or even...

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Matthew Stewart, a stay-at-home dad in a wealthy New Jersey suburb, is leading a battle against the "boutique" charter schools that are being planned for his community.

?I'm in favor of a quality education for everyone,? Stewart told Winnie Hu of the New York Times. ?In suburban areas like Millburn, there's no evidence whatsoever that the local school district is not doing its job. So what's the rationale for a charter school??

Great question! With an easy answer: different parents define "quality education" differently. One person's "good school" is another person's "bad fit." Stewart may love his public schools, which might do an excellent job providing a straight-down-the-middle education to its (mostly affluent) charges. But the parents developing a nearby charter school want something more. (Namely, a Mandarin-immersion experience for their kids.) For which Mr. Stewart labels them "selfish."

?Public education is basically a social contract ? we all pool our money, so I don't think I should be able to custom-design it to my needs,? he said, noting that he pays $15,000 a year in property taxes. ?With these charter schools, people are trying to say, ?I want a custom-tailored education for my children, and I want you, as my neighbor, to pay for it.' ?

So let me get this straight. As a parent, I'm "selfish" if I want to send my sons to a public school that meets their needs, and meshes with my values and my aspirations for them? The "selfless" thing to do...

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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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