Charters & Choice

July brought us the annual U.S. Census Bureau Statistical Abstract (flush with data on educational attainment, staffing, finances, etc.); October washed in the latest federal school-enrollment data. Once again, private-school enrollment suffers: Battered by a harsh economic climate, private-school enrollment has eroded precipitously in recent years. Since its high-water mark in 1965, enrollment in these schools has dropped by 2.2 million; since 2005, enrollment is down 12 percent. Now just 11 percent of students attend private or parochial schools. While Census data cannot show the reasons for these declines, the causes seem to be tripartite. Catholic-school enrollment has steadily decreased over the past few decades; in New York City, Catholic enrollment fell by over 14,500 over the past five years alone. This at the same time as the charter-school market share has steadily increased (particularly drawing students away from urban Catholic schools). And finally, enrollment in early-childhood education has largely shifted from a private- to public-school phenomenon. In 1965, the vast majority of nursery-school enrollments were private; by 2011, that percentage had dropped by over 34 points. (This while public-preschool enrollment jumped from 24 percent to nearly 59 percent.) And the trends...

The traditional urban public school system is broken, and it cannot be fixed.

It must be replaced.

Given urban districts’ unblemished record of failure over generations, you’d think these statements would be widely accepted and represent the core of the education-reform strategy. But somehow, just about everyone working in this area assumes that the traditional school district is essential and immortal—that because of its age and standing, it must be the focus of reform. Few recognize the anachronism of a model created by historical circumstances—mass immigration, industrialization, and Progressive Era-idealism—rather than today’s social realities and educational priorities.

Where I Teach
Chartering provides a blueprint for the urban school system of the future.
Photo by Todd Ehlers.

I am convinced that the district is not part of the solution. It is the problem. Persistent low performance is the natural consequence of this institution that our predecessors placed at the heart of urban public schooling. No city will ever realize a renaissance in K-12 education...

An oft-overlooked sector in American K-12 education has also been its most rapidly growing: homeschooling. There are currently more than two million home-school students in the U.S., marking a growth rate of between 7 and 12 percent per annum since the 1970s. This book-cum-literature review profiles this expanding sector, tracking its prevalence, demographics, history, rationale, instructional methods, and impact—drawing data and conclusions from an impressive seventeen pages of references. Many points are unsurprising, though the breadth of data provides a uniquely robust representation of this group: Homeschoolers tend to be white (93 percent), conservative (93 percent), and squarely in the middle class (with wealthier families opting for private schools and poorer families lacking the economic flexibility needed to keep a parent out of the workforce). The vast majority are Christian (92 percent)—the rise in homeschooling parallels the rise in Christian fundamentalism in the states—though Muslims mark the fastest growing sub-set of homeschoolers over the past few years. The average home-schooled family has two to three children; the parents are about 20 percent more likely to have a college degree than non-home-school parents; and the children score higher on...

Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) represent the surest way to bring vouchers into the twenty-first century (and help immunize choice programs from Blaine Amendment-based court challenges), argues author Matt Ladner in this informative Friedman Foundation paper. First piloted in Arizona (at a scale much smaller than what Ladner proposes here), ESAs give parents the option to withdraw their children from public or charter schools, deposit the majority of their allotted public dollars into a designated account, and apply that money directly to any number of other academic options—including private schools, online courses, early college options, or even a future college education. With such a funding structure, the study contends, parents will be free to choose K-12 options based on quality and cost, thereby spurring innovation, improving quality, and breaking America of its “education stagnation” and gross achievement gaps. Ladner also explains the legislative safeguards that must be in place for an ESA system to be effective (HSAs and food stamps offer helpful guidance). There is much merit for such a proposed finance system—especially as digital and blended learning models take form. But Ladner’s paper has one overt flaw:...

When charter schools first emerged twenty years ago, they represented a revolution, ushering in a new era that put educational choice, innovation, and autonomy front and center in the effort to improve our schools. While charters have always been very diverse in characteristics and outcomes, it wasn’t long before a particular kind of gap-closing, “No Excuses” charter grabbed the lion’s share of public attention. But in this rush to crown and invest in a few “winners,” have we turned our backs on the push for innovation that was meant to be at the core of the charter experiment?

Hopscotch
The debate over education reform has become so polarized that people are painted neatly into boxes and told that they are either "in" or they are "out."
Photo by Jan Tik.

Of course, the top charter-management organizations (CMOs) got this level of attention the old fashioned way: They earned it. The best CMOs—like KIPP, Uncommon Schools, and Achievement First—have done amazing work. The teachers put in long...

One of the central tenets of the charter-school idea is that these institutions should be open to all comers, regardless of an applicant’s home address. Ending “zip-code education,” after all, is a major motivation behind the school-choice movement. It’s a big deal, then, that a District of Columbia task force is looking into allowing charter schools to offer preferential treatment to applicants from their immediate neighborhoods. To be sure, a handful of other cities have already allowed such preferences—Denver, New York, New Orleans, and Chicago. In those cases, the neighborhood preferences were either sought by the schools—so that they could serve a needy local population—or school districts, as conditions of handing over public school buildings. That approach makes us a bit squeamish, but can be justified if the goal is to ensure that disadvantaged kids in a given locale have access to a great education. What’s impossible to justify, however, are preferences (or outright boundaries) that might keep poor kids out of charter schools. That’s precisely what could happen in D.C. if charters in certain gentrifying parts of the city, like Capitol Hill’s Ward Six, are allowed to use these preferences. The charter movement shouldn’t be doctrinaire. But it shouldn’t...

At some point, we ought to acknowledge that the traditional union contract is incompatible with the untraditional concept of charter schools. That should be easier to do now that the nation’s first union-led charter school is struggling to stay open.

The traditional union contract is incompatible with the untraditional concept of charter schools.

Now seven years old, the UFT Charter School is one of the lowest performing schools in New York City (it has scored two Ds on the city’s report card in three years) and its authorizer, the SUNY Charter Schools Institute, will soon consider whether to renew its charter.

This is a bad development for the United Federation of Teachers, considering that former UFT President Randi Weingarten said in 2005 that the school would “finally dispel the misguided and simplistic notion that the union contract is an impediment to success.” Many factors certainly may have contributed to the dismal achievement at the school, where less than a third of students are reading at grade level. But if anything, the UFT has shown us that union contracts are a poor fit for successful charters.

About 12 percent of the nation’s charter schools are unionized, according to 2010...

When charter schools first emerged twenty years ago, they represented a revolution, ushering in a new era that put educational choice, innovation, and autonomy front and center in the effort to improve our schools. While charters have always been very diverse in characteristics and outcomes, it wasn’t long before a particular kind of gap-closing, “No Excuses” charter grabbed the lion’s share of public attention. But in this rush to crown and invest in a few “winners,” have we turned our back on the push for innovation that was meant to be at the core of the charter experiment?

It’s become increasingly obvious that charters have hit a wall in their quest to put their students on the path to college.

Of course, the top charter management organizations got this level of attention the old fashioned way: they earned it. The best CMOs—like KIPP, Uncommon Schools, and Achievement First—have done amazing work. The teachers work long hours and do—often quite literally—whatever it takes to give students the kinds of opportunities they’ve had.

But, while charters have made important strides, it’s become increasingly obvious that they’ve also hit a wall in their quest to put their students on the path to college....

The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation’s application process for new charter schools for next school year just wrapped up, and we are pleased to announce that two new schools – a KIPP elementary school and a KIPP middle school – have been approved by the board of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation for sponsorship.

These two schools underwent a comprehensive application process (outlined in figure 1, below), which, in partnership with our colleagues from the Ohio Authorizer Collaborative (OAC), began in January 2012.

Nine applicants began our 2013 application cycle (which opened in January 2012), and school designs varied widely. Of the nine, three promising applications were approved to move forward during the initial review phase. After review by a team of external consultants with relevant experience in school finance, academics and governance, two were moved on to the final phase of the application process and subsequently approved by the Fordham Foundation to open. Approvals were granted based on the strength and alignment of key components of the application, including the proposed education, finance, governance and operations plans, and, the interview.

Figure 1: Thomas B. Fordham Foundation New Charter School Application Process

Both new KIPP...

We are now in the twentieth year of charter schools and during that time a lot has been learned about those that work and those that fail. Roland G. Fryer of The Hamilton Project discusses some of the lessons learned in his new report Learning from the Successes and Failures of Charter Schools.

Fryer analyzed videos, surveys, and lottery data from 35 charter schools in New York City to distinguish practices that generate student achievement. He found that the traditional components districts link to success—class size, per pupil expenditure, percent of teachers with advanced degrees—were not related to high reading and math scores.

So what are successful charters doing differently compared to lower performers? Consistently high-achieving charter schools had five practices in common: 1) increased professional development; 2) data-driven instruction; 3) high-dosage, personalized instruction that targets curricula to the level of each student; 4) increased time on task; and 5) a strong emphasis on high academic expectations.

These methods are working for charters, and may also find success in traditional schools. Preliminary outcomes from pilot programs that implemented these strategies in Denver and Houston public district schools show a sharp increase in student achievement. Fryer acknowledges that all five...

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