Charters & Choice

Want to know if school reform is winning in the court of public opinion? If the myriad efforts at ed-reform advocacy are paying off? Here are seven races and referenda to watch tonight, in order of importance:

Tony Bennett
Ed Reform Idol Tony Bennett with the author.
Photo by Joe Portnoy.

1. Tony Bennett’s re-election

No one has pushed a more aggressive education-reform agenda than Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction (and Ed-Reform Idol) Tony Bennett and his fellow ed-reform activist Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels. A big win will give a big boost to Hoosier-style reform.

2. The Washington State charter initiative

Seattle is the largest city in the country that doesn’t have any charter schools. This initiative would finally fix that. Charter supporters have failed at the polls before; will they prevail this time around?

3. Idaho’s Propositions 1 and 2

These two referenda would limit the scope of collective bargaining and mandate that student achievement be included in teacher evaluations. The unions are fighting...

It may be tempting for legislators to point to the scandalous payments made to an Orlando charter school principal as a reason to tighten regulations governing all charters. In the last week, we’ve learned that the principal of the now-closed NorthStar High Charter in Orlando not only received a $519,000 contractual payout from her board, her compensation exceeded the amount the school had spent on classroom instruction. (NorthStar closed before the Orange County School Board could shut it down for poor academic performance.)

Are school boards are doing enough to provide oversight of the charters in their portfolios?

But now might be a better time to set aside legislative energy and ask whether school boards are doing enough to provide oversight of the charters in their portfolios (as in many states, only school districts can authorize charter schools in Florida).

It may seem hard to hold the Orange County School Board accountable in this case. According to one official at the Florida Department of Education, the last couple of financial reports that NorthStar High sent to the school district showed that the principal earned about $73,000 a year. But her actual pay was much more. Last week, the...

Trick or tweet?

Mike channels Darth Vader and Checker channels, well, Checker, in a Halloween edition of the podcast featuring all sorts of treats: charter schools, the Common Core, and the political appeal of ed reform. Amber explains why Fordham’s latest study on teacher-union strength is a must-read—all 405 pages of it.

Amber's Research Minute

On Election Day, Georgia voters will get to decide whether their state can authorize and oversee charter schools, a power that rests almost exclusively with locally elected school boards. Of course, school districts have urged Georgians to maintain the status quo by voting no on the constitutional amendment before them, contending that a new state bureaucracy would be unanswerable to their needs and concerns. But voters should consider what “local control” of public education has meant in the Peach State.

Voters should consider what “local control” of public education has meant in the Peach State.

Fundamentally, it has empowered most of the state’s larger school districts to keep charter growth (and, therefore, school choice) moderate at best. Nowhere has that been more evident than in Gwinnett County, Georgia’s largest school system (and the thirteenth largest in the nation) where charter students make up less than 1 percent of the public school population.

Perhaps Gwinnett was on Republican state Senator Fran Millar’s mind when he wrote recently in the Atlanta-Journal Constitution that “there are areas of this state where local school boards will not approve any charter school.” But Gwinnett is hardly alone, and that is why voters should...

Exam Schools: The Ups and Downs of Selective Public High Schools

Exam Schools: The Ups and Downs of Selective Public High Schools

The plight of low-performing students dominates our education news and policies. Yet America's high flyers demand innovative, rigorous schooling as well, particularly if the country is to sharpen its economic and scientific edge. Motivated, high-ability youngsters can be served in myriad ways by public education, including schools that specialize in them. In a new book from Princeton University Press, Exam Schools: Inside America's Most Selective Public High Schools, co-authors Chester Finn and Jessica Hockett identify 165 such high schools across America.

In this Fordham LIVE! conversation, they and others will examine some of the issues that selective-admission public high schools pose. Who attends them? How are their students selected? Are such schools the future of gifted education or do they unfairly advantage a select few at the expense of most students? Just how different are they, anyway?

Authors Finn and Hockett will be joined by a pair of educators instrumental in the creation of two of the "exam schools" profiled in the book: Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president emeritus of George Washington University and a key player in the establishment of D.C.'s selective School Without Walls, and Geoffrey Jones, founding principal of Alexandria's Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology

A huge part of my educational worldview is “sector agnosticism,” my disinterest in who runs schools as long as those schools are high performing. My new book is built around this philosophy; it argues for a new urban school system that assesses each school based on its performance and then applies strategies to schools based on their performance not on their operators.

Private schools should be part of the urban school system of the future.

Unlike so many others studying urban education, I believe that private schools should be part of this urban school system of the future. Per my axiom above, I don’t much care if an urban school is run by a private or religious organization if it gets great results for underserved kids and adheres to basic democratic, pluralistic principles.

But in the past when the state attempts to fold private schools into the mix via scholarship or tax-credit programs, public accountability is always the major stumbling block. Will participating private schools test students and report results? Will they test just the scholarship kids or all of their students? What test will they use? Will low-performance disqualify a private school from...

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett promised a school-choice juggernaut in the Keystone State when he campaigned for office two years ago. Not only has no crusade has ever come to pass, Corbett and the GOP-led state assembly let a modest charter school reform bill languish in the House recently without a vote. This should have been an opportunity for the state’s executive and legislative leadership to pay more than lip service to education reform. But, again, they failed.

This should have been an opportunity for the state’s executive and legislative leadership to pay more than lip service to education reform.

What’s worse, the bill the House killed had already been weakened through compromise. The effort to create an independent state board to authorize charters was removed to accommodate complaints for local school boards, which—with the exception of virtual schools—remain the sole charter authorizers in Pennsylvania. What was left was a commission to recommend a smarter funding strategy for charters, a provision to award high-performing charter schools with a ten-year  contract (up from five), an application of the state’s Ethics Act to charters, and a move to allow charter networks to oversee multiple schools with one board, among other things....

Anyone who cares about Catholic education ought to watch what’s happening in Philadelphia, not just because the archbishop there has turned twenty-one of his schools over to a private foundation, but because that foundation is applying business principles to schools that sorely need them.

Carter and Faith in the Future have the potential to invigorate a vital sector of education throughout North America.

For starters, the Faith in the Future Foundation two weeks ago chose a longtime education and charter-school guru named Samuel Casey Carter to shepherd its new network of Catholic high schools to viability. Carter has a resume you don’t generally find in a school administrator, and he knows how to measure a school’s effectiveness in ways that would be lost on the typical bishop.

But, if they succeed, Carter and Faith in the Future have the potential to invigorate a vital sector of education throughout North America.

One would be hard-pressed to find a diocese presently undertaking an analysis of the market conditions affecting its schools and its finances, but that’s precisely what Carter spent his first few days on the job developing. In a recent interview, he laid out a plan that would examine 1.)...

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...

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