Charters & Choice

There has been a lot of controversy in Ohio in recent weeks around House-proposed legislative changes to the state's charter law that would decimate an already weak charter school accountability system (see here, here, and here). Fordham has not been shy about commenting publicly on what's wrong with the House language, nor have we shied away from arguing for stronger charter accountability and transparency. Those who know us understand our advocacy for strong charter accountability provisions are not new.

In fact, we have been a strong voice for charter school quality for more than a decade and played a critical role in the production of Turning the Corner to Quality: Policy Guidelines for Strengthening Ohio's Charter Schools. This report, released collaboratively with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and the National Association of Charter Schools Authorizers in October 2006, recommended a ???housecleaning??? to close down Ohio's poorest performing schools. Partly in response, the General Assembly passed a law in December 2006 to force failing schools to improve or face automatic closure.

Because we have been such outspoken and visible critics of the recent House language, many who disagree with us are raising questions publicly and behind the scenes about our motivations. Some have accused Fordham???in its advocating for a statewide authorizing entity that would merge the portfolios of existing sponsors, including Fordham???of trying to give birth to a ???super- sponsor??? in order to orchestrate some form of a charter school power grab. Still...

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Pennsylvania is trying to fix a thorny problem with virtual schools. If two kids attend a virtual school, one from a high spending district that sends along $10,000 in their backpack to the virtual school, and another from low spending district that sends $6,000, the former child's district is subsidizing the latter's education. It's a tough issue.

The solution proposed on Monday by Rep. James Roebuck (D-Phila.) is extreme, however. He proposes that the state pay the entire bill for virtual-school students, as well as youngsters in traditional charter schools, leaving more resources to educate fewer kids in district schools. Since there's on a finite amount of money available for public education in the state, this short-changes children who attend schools of choice.?The proposal also defeats one of the purposes of school choice: competition for students and the resources to educate them.

Virtual schools present some unique governance and school-finance challenges, but rewarding districts for failing to serve kids effectively is not a good solution. Instead, Pennsylvania legislators should develop a financing system where the state steps in to correct disparities but still allows as much local funding as possible to follow a child wherever he or she goes in the education system. Pennsylvania's citizens are taxed to provide resources for all children in public schools, not to preserve buildings and jobs in the traditional system of district schools.

?Chris Tessone...

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First came the recruitment of State Superintendent Deborah Gist; next came winning $75 million in Race to the Top (RTTT) funds. Rhode Island has been on a whirlwind track toward education reform over the past couple years. And?as one with boatloads of Ocean State pride (who doesn't love coffee milk, water fire, and Dels lemonade?)?it's been fun to watch.

Of course, no reform effort is without its drama. Parents erupted when Central Falls Superintendent Frances Gallo announced a turnaround effort at the city's high school. Currently, organized pushback is being targeted against the expansion of Achievement First (AF) into Rhodey.

AF is a proven high-quality charter-school network, currently operating nineteen charters in New York and Connecticut. In 2007, one of its campuses was highlighted by the US DOE as a model for closing the achievement gap; it was one of seven such schools in the country. In 2009, fourth graders at AF's two oldest campuses (both in New York) demonstrated 93 percent proficiency in English language arts and 99 percent proficiency in math.

Since Rhode Island submitted its RTTT application, there have been tentative plans to expand AF the Ocean State. These plans?and the vocal opposition of them?recently solidified, as Cranston Mayor Alan Fung invited Achievement First to his district.

Why the backlash? Former Fordham colleague (now with the New Jersey Department of Education), Andy Smarick called it in March 2010 when discussing the Central Falls out:

We all know about the plans to

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An analysis released in today's Education Gadfly finds that new charter schools in disadvantaged communities are almost four times as likely to reach above-average rates of student achievement as the closest district school. This raises serious questions about the wisdom of the federal government pumping $3 billion into school turnaround efforts instead of using some of the money to replicate and scale up successful charter models.

However, the finding comes with several big caveats. First, because of the small sample size, the results cannot be deemed statistically significant. And second, it's impossible to know whether "selection effects" played a role--whether the new charter schools performed better because they attracted better students.

The analysis was by David Stuit, a Vanderbilt PhD. who authored a previous Fordham study on school turnarounds last December.

The idea for this analysis came from Public Impact's Bryan Hassel. After the release of our December study--which found that just one percent of district and charter school turnarounds were successful, as defined as reaching at least the 50th percentile in state proficiency in reading and math--Bryan wondered whether charter start-ups in similar neighborhoods would fare any better against such rigorous criteria.

So we asked Stuit to give it a look. As he explains in his essay:

Across ten states (Arizona, California, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin), I located all incidents (between 2002-03 and 2006-07) of a charter school opening in close proximity to a district school

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The Harmony Charter school opus in today's Times is a great read.? It's very long, over 4,000 words, starting on the front page and covering two full pages on the inside of the paper. But its author, Stephanie Saul, is a crack ?investigative reporter? and a 1995 recipient of a Pulitzer -- not an education writer.? The headline is a grabber: ?Charter Schools Tied to Turkey Grow in Texas,? as is the subhead:? ?Some Founders Belong to Islamic Movement.?? Saul tells the story of the Cosmos Foundation, which runs Harmony and is now the largest charter school operator in the Lone Star State, and focuses much of her attention on a ?close-knit network of businesses and organizations run by Turkish immigrants? that benefit from the $100 million in taxpayer funds Harmony receives to run its 33 Texas schools. ?Throw in a ?charismatic Turkish preacher of a moderate brand of Islam? whose followers have helped start 120 schools in 25 states, lots of male teachers from foreign countries, and you have the makings of an education potboiler.? ?The growth of these `Turkish schools,' as they are often called,? writes Saul, "has come with a measure of backlash, not all of it untainted by xenophobia.?

Though there don't appear to be any smoking guns here, the story should be read in conjunction with Jay Greene's limits and dangers of philanthropy essay, as it raises important issues about charter accountability ? in this case, it's less about academics...

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Though American education has taken few actual steps to pattern itself on other countries, in recent years we've displayed a near-obsessive interest in how we're doing in relation to them (e.g. on TIMSS and PISA results), and in what they're doing and how they do it. We at Fordham have found ourselves doing this a couple of times and we've periodically reviewed major analyses of ?education success stories around the world? by the likes of McKinsey. We've also read our share?OK, more than our share?of paeans to Finland, Singapore, you name it. (At the U.S. Education Department, I helped lead a study of Japanese education as long ago as 1988.) I've also?long admired Marc Tucker's tireless efforts to get American educators and reformers to understand and appreciate how other nations address challenges that often resemble our own.

Old GlobeWhich isn't to say I always agree with him. And that's true of his latest paper, too?drawn from a book coming out in September.?He seeks to determine "what education policy might look like in the United States if it was [sic] based on the experiences of our most successful competitors." In that role, he casts Canada (Ontario), Finland, and three East Asian lands (Japan, Singapore, and the Shanghai region of China.) And in fifty pages he offers a wealth of insights that are surely perceptive yet not entirely applicable on these...

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The US Department of Education has hired a new director of its Federal Charter Schools Program, which oversees a variety of grant programs for starting and replicating public charter schools, as well as credit enhancements to help them afford high-quality facilities. Stefan Huh, the new director, is leaving DC's Office the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) after four years running the Office of Public Charter School Financing and Support there. (Full disclosure: I worked for Stefan at OSSE last summer and consider him a mentor and an important influence on my decision to work full-time in education after business school.)

Stefan's tenure in DC provides some hopeful signs that ED will continue to step up its game on charters. First, while he's a strong advocate for public charter schools, he focused strongly on school quality while running the program at OSSE. For instance, the office added a competitive grant component to its teacher compensation program last summer, developed by my colleague Jessica Sutter.

Second, Huh is not a natural-born bureaucrat ? he understands that building more quality schools means taking calculated risks. For example, most of ED's grantees in the Credit Enhancement Program for charter school facilities have used those funds in safe ways that have not dramatically increased access to capital for new charters. Texas uses its $10 million from the Department only for bond financing, which typically only very mature, safe charters can access. Under Stefan's direction, DC has instead largely backed younger schools that...

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