Charters & Choice

Greg Richmond

Here follows the fifth entry in Fordham’s “Charter School Policy Wonk-a-Thon,” in which Mike Petrilli challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to take a stab at explaining why some charter sectors outpace their local district schools while others are falling behind.

For the rest of the nation, California is a land of paradoxes. Stunning natural beauty comes with earthquakes and wildfires. Hollywood comes with Kim Kardashian. And the nation’s biggest charter school state comes with both the most excellent charter schools and the most that are failing. 

One thing that is not working well within California’s charter school sector is authorizing. There are too many authorizers (more than 300), authorizing too few schools (just one or two). And the process for approving new charter schools is often adversarial and litigious. I draw two conclusions from this: Authorizing matters and we should not replicate California’s authorizing practices across the nation.

When one looks at CREDO's 2009 and 2013 studies, two types of performance emerge. First, states with the best charter school performance are those with good authorizers who have maintained high standards and have closed failing schools. See New York, Louisiana, and Massachusetts. The lowest-quality states have been those with authorizers who have had low standards. See Texas, Ohio, and others.  

Second, states where overall charter performance is no different than traditional public schools have had random, often adversarial authorizing practices. See California. Too often under California law and practice, authorizers are purposely powerless—powerless...

Jed Wallace, Elizabeth Robitaille

Here follows the fourth entry in Fordham’s “Charter School Policy Wonk-a-Thon,” in which Mike Petrilli challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to take a stab at explaining why some charter sectors outpace their local district schools while others are falling behind.

The California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) has been issuing annual research on the academic performance of the California charter sector for several years. California is unique in the sheer size and diversity of the charter movement—the number and range of charter schools in California far exceeds that of any other state. Historically, we have found that charter schools both tend to overperform and underperform relative to non-charter public schools, providing a “U-Shape” spectrum of performance. At the same time, we see that different categories of charter schools are found in different concentrations on the performance spectrum, with some categories tending to overperform and other categories tending to underperform. These same trends are likely present in other states as well, but the numbers of charter schools in those states are not yet sizable enough to yield the clear findings we see here. California can therefore serve as a useful microcosm for understanding the differences in academic performance of the charter movement across the nation.

One clear finding we identify is that a high concentration of nonprofit, mission-driven charter organizations serving historically disadvantaged students consistently yields strong results. In Los Angeles, San Jose, and Oakland, we have large numbers of charter schools (educating 20 percent...

Here follows the second entry in Fordham’s “Charter School Policy Wonk-a-Thon,” in which Mike Petrilli challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to take a stab at explaining why some charter sectors outpace their local district schools while others are falling behind.

If I were made omnipotent for a day and charged with creating a single high-performing city charter sector, my playbook would probably look similar to that of other charter supporters…but with one major exception.

Here’s what I’d do based on the lessons of the last two decades.

Acquire as much educator talent as possible

No system of schools can thrive without the best teachers and school leaders. New York City (during its Klein-era heyday), Boston, and New Orleans have been magnets for talents, and they’ve benefitted accordingly. National organizations such as Teach For America and TNTP have been indispensable educator pipelines in leading cities, and a number of homegrown initiatives have also been valuable.

Recruit and build high-quality school operators

Blessedly, we finally have a critical mass of organizations that can start and operate high-performing, high-poverty urban schools. Cities with outstanding CMOs such as KIPP, Uncommon, and Achievement First have a huge head start. These organizations reliably develop and scale successful schools. But there are still too few of these national operators, and it would be understandable if a city were to balk at the idea of having a public school system comprised entirely of “outside” operators. Great charter school incubators like those...

The #Kimye edition

After discussing what the research says young North West’s likelihood of educational success are, Mike and Michelle get down to brass tacks on Oklahoma’s possible Common Core repeal, the value of a college degree, and what makes Boston’s charter sector so high quality. Amber grades America’s public pension plans.

Amber's Research Minute

The State of Retirement: Grading America's Public Pension Plans by Richard W. Johnson, Barbara Butrica, Owen Haaga, and Benjamin G. Southgate, (Washington, D.C.: The Urban Institute, 2014).

Michael Goldstein

Here follows the first entry in Fordham’s “Charter School Policy Wonk-a-Thon,” in which Mike Petrilli challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to take a stab at explaining why some charter sectors outpace their local district schools while others are falling behind.

Why do some charter sectors outpace their local district schools while others are falling behind? To begin to answer this question, let me pose a second. Among high-performing charter cities, why does Boston outperform other “good” charter cities (by a country mile)?

Hey, I get it. We Bostonians tend toward annoying self-promotion. Sox, Pats, Bruins, Celts for a while, Harvard, John Hancock, etc. Let me just concede up front that there’s an irritating quality to my question.

But look at the chart. Here are CREDO’s top cities, measured in “days of learning.”

The difference between Boston charters and, say, D.C. charters is bigger than the difference between D.C. charters and their district schools. If we’re to discover why the average charter in D.C. or New Orleans is so much better than the average one in, say, Detroit or Miami, I believe we need to answer the Boston question.

Let’s dispense with some theories of why Boston charters outperform these other cities, beginning with the obvious.

1. Is this a boutique story? It is true that Boston’s charters educate just under 9,000 students. Thus, one could say that even if...

I’m a huge believer in high-quality charter authorizing. My view is that many of the strengths of chartering today are attributable to good authorizing and that many of chartering’s weaknesses are the result of bad authorizing.

I know from firsthand experience how tough it is to run a great authorizing shop. I oversaw the NJDOE’s authorizing office, the only authorizer in the state, and became intimately acquainted with the challenges of staffing, the difficulties of building the right practices, the competing factors involved in renewal decisions, the regularity of lawsuits, and more.

I’m particularly excited (and concerned) about authorizing because I believe that all urban public schools, including district-run schools, should have contracts with authorizers. I also believe that private schools participating in public scholarship or tax-credit programs should have performance contracts with authorizers.

I think it’s essential to have an accountability body separate from the school itself and the school’s operator. If we’re to adopt this model across two or three sectors, we need to make sure authorizers are ready for the promotion.

NACSA’s sixth annual survey of authorizers is a must-read for anyone trying to become familiar with the ins and outs of authorizing, as well as those interested in seeing big gains in authorizer quality.

The report doesn’t diverge much from previous editions, but the basic descriptive statistics are important, especially as they relate to NACSA’s “12 Essential Practices.” ...


It strikes us at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute that the CREDO studies of the last few years provide pretty good evidence of what we’ve always suspected: charters in some cities and states are performing much better than their traditional district counterparts, at least as measured by value-added on standardized tests, while others are performing worse. (At the top of the performance heap are charters in Boston, New Orleans, Rhode Island, and D.C.; at the bottom are charters in Nevada, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Ohio, and Texas.)

The question is, why?

This is hardly hypothetical; for reformers in real places (like our team in Dayton, Ohio), the question of how to create a high-quality charter sector is at the heart of our work. While we understand that nobody can claim definitively (with causal evidence) which policies and practices explain the relatively high or low performance of charter sectors in different cities and states, we still think it’s worth trying to collect some wisdom based on the best available data.

To that end, we have asked a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to take a stab at explaining why some charter sectors outpace their local district schools while others are falling behind. Possible explanations include the following:

  • Cities and states with caps (now or in the past) tend to have higher-performing charters because authorizers were more careful in handing out charters.
  • Cities and states
  • ...

Last week, I participated in two events that challenged my ideas on one of urban education’s trickiest and most combustible issues.

Those who know only a caricatured version of my views might be surprised by both the subject and those who’ve caused my ruminations. But I wrestled with this issue in my book, and while I don’t always see eye-to-eye with my interlocutors of last week, they have valuable insights into this issue.

I’m writing about it here both because it’s important and because, frankly, I need help figuring out the right answer.

The question is, “How do we protect the ‘public’ in public education?”

On Wednesday, I participated in this discussion at the AFT’s Shanker Institute. At a conference the following day, I moderated a conversation between urban school leaders, and similar issues kept bubbling up.

There are many ways to define a school’s “public-ness” (Rick Hess expertly unbundles the issues here). But the aspect I’m most concerned about relates to governance, whether the public—the adults in the geographic area served by the system of schools—is able to shape the contours of the system.

The very specific issue I’m interested in is how this can happen absent locally elected school boards.

Per state constitutions, ensuring a system of public education is the responsibility of state governments. They, however, have created local school districts and boards, thereby delegating K–12 authority...

As most states’ legislative sessions wind down for the year, it’s not too early to ask how school choice has been faring, particularly when compared with the remarkable gains around the country during the past several years.

Here’s a rundown, in case you haven’t been paying attention:

  • Since 2011, two states have enacted charter-school laws for the first time (Washington and Maine) and many others have improved their laws (a dozen did so just last year).
  • During that time, twenty private-school choice programs were created in fifteen states, along with a number of others that were expanded or otherwise reformed.
  • A handful of states created new “course choice” programs.
  • In 2011, Arizona enacted the nation’s first education savings account (ESA) program.

Why all of that activity? Much of it can be traced to the Republicans’ wave election in 2010, which made the state-level political environment considerably friendlier to charter schools, vouchers, and other forms of parental choice. Republicans gained nearly 700 legislative seats that year, giving them control over more seats than at any time since 1928. They also gained a net of six governors’ offices. Then they maintained most of this edge in the 2012 election, yielding back only about 150 seats.

Nobody knows what the 2014 elections will bring politically, but the early months of the year have seen less impressive progress educationally, at least in terms of education choice. There have been some key missed opportunities. And many legislators...

We are excited to share that the nationally renowned Building Excellent Schools (BES) Fellowship program is in Columbus this week to visit and study the United Schools Network (USN). USN is comprised of Columbus Collegiate Academy – Main, and Columbus Collegiate Academy – West. Both schools have been recognized for producing outstanding academic results in schools where a majority of students are economically disadvantaged (92 percent at Main, 100 percent at West).

Building Excellent Schools’ core work is to raise the quality of urban charter schools to ensure that all students have the opportunity to receive the education they deserve. Their highly selective fellowship has seeded more than 60 schools in 20 cities serving 20,000 students nationwide. Over the next two years, those numbers will grow to over 130 campuses in 30 cities.

Individuals selected as fellows focus on closing the achievement gap in some of the highest need communities across the country. Fellows spend a year studying how to design, found, and lead a charter school. During that year, fellows master school design and leadership, operations, governance, and external relations. Fellows also visit over 30 high-performing schools around the country, engage in a month-long residency in an excellent school, and interact with subject-area experts.

On-site study, such as that taking place at the Columbus Collegiate schools this week, is one of the lynchpins of the practice-based BES Fellowship. Columbus Collegiate Academy – Main, the flagship school, was founded in 2008 by 2006 BES Fellow Andrew Boy. In...