Charters & Choice

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...

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...

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...

Let’s set aside the poor box office results for Won’t Back Down (which set a record for the worst film opening ever). There are still as many as twenty states considering legislation that would enact the parent trigger that inspired the film. Hollywood may not have the mojo to move these measures along more quickly, but there are many lawmakers who remain convinced that parents should be empowered to fire a school’s management if it’s failing their children or hire a charter provider who may do the job better.

Parent-trigger laws ought to give parents as many tools and options as are available.

For a law like this to succeed—and it remains far from clear whether it can—it ought to give parents as many tools and options as are available. That’s why it was troubling to see the trigger’s most evangelical supporter, Ben Austin, take an ideologically rigid stance against the role that for-profit educators might play in these turnaround efforts.

Austin heads up the Parent Revolution in California, which was the first state to pass a trigger law (it did so in January 2010) but he’s been busy lobbying for the trigger outside the Golden State...

Next month, Georgia voters will head to the polls to decide whether their state can establish an independent commission to authorize and oversee some of its charter schools. Such a panel once existed in the Peach State and authorized sixteen schools before the state Supreme Court voted 4-3 last year to dissolve it on grounds that it was “palpably unconstitutional.” The original commission had authorized charters over the objections of local school boards, which brought the suit against the state and which remain the most fervent opponents of the current referendum. (Districts, of course, would compete with the schools operating under the commission’s direction.)

Unfortunately, the press and interest groups are largely on the school boards’ side, bemoaning the potential loss of “local control” and the prospect that the state would authorize schools unanswerable to local communities. According to a pre-election poll, however, at least half of Georgia’s voters appear to feel differently. Not surprising, considering that twenty years of charter schooling have highlighted the dysfunction of Georgia-style “local control” and the extent to which school boards and superintendents will go to preserve their near-monopolies. Ten other states have independent panels of this sort to authorize...

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