Charters & Choice

Checker thinks that Sam Chaltain, Rick Kahlenberg, and I are engaging in “nanny-statism” when we propose a form of “controlled choice” in strategic locations of Washington, D.C., which he likens to “forced busing” and “social engineering.”

Has Checker been watching That 70s Show? (Or maybe American Hustle?) Those are fighting words from the age of Nixon. But they have nothing to do with what we’re suggesting today.

As Checker himself acknowledges, a sizable proportion of parents—rich, poor, white, black, and Hispanic—would like to choose diverse schools for their children. Stress the word “choose.” The question is, without an assist from public policy, will these parents have any diverse schools among which to choose?

Here’s the dilemma: most of the schools in D.C., as elsewhere in the country, are socioeconomically isolated—either uniformly upper middle class (west of Rock Creek Park) or uniformly poor (everywhere else). That’s no surprise—most neighborhoods in Washington are highly segregated, too, and the schools reflect this unfortunate fact.

What’s new, and interesting, is that neighborhoods are starting to change—in some cases, rapidly. Capitol Hill has already gentrified; Columbia Heights, Petworth, Logan Circle/Shaw, and Takoma are on their way. This is great news from a “diverse-schools” perspective, because it means that people of different socioeconomic backgrounds are living close enough to one another that socioeconomically diverse schools are feasible—without busing.

So why not just “let the river run freely,” as Checker proposes? Let schools change naturally, as their neighborhoods are changing naturally,...

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Last night, President Obama promised to use the stroke of his pen to push forward initiatives upon which Congress refuses to act. In the education realm, this is nothing new (see: conditional ESEA waivers) and generally nothing to cheer. But just this morning, the U.S. Department of Education took an executive action that I support strongly, issuing new guidance for the Public Charter Schools Program that will allow charters to use “weighted lotteries” without forfeiting their chance to receive federal start-up funds.

I’ve been making the case for such an allowance for years; Sam Chaltain, Rick Kahlenberg and I did so again just the other day in the Washington Post. The premise is pretty simple: charter schools that want to be socioeconomically diverse sometimes struggle to maintain a healthy balance if they are forced to use a single random lottery. That’s because the best charters often become so popular with middle-class parents that they flood the lotteries and end up taking most of the available seats.

In fact, some of the most successful diverse charter schools, such as the Denver School of Science and Technology and High Tech High, have decided to pass on federal start-up funds so they can use lotteries that achieve their integration goals. Now they won’t have to.

This will also help charter schools, like Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academies, that seek to enroll more English-language learners or students from other underserved subgroups. (New York charters are required by law to serve a...

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President Obama is leaving us on the edge of our seats as to whether he will discuss certain topics in tonight's State of the Union address. But it is a near certainty that he will talk at length about economic mobility and poverty. While we think that's a good thing, we do wish the President would be more open minded toward policies with a proven track record in helping to grow the economy and lift people out of poverty, including school choice.

New legislation released today by Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and a complementary bill from Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) released earlier this month show that Republicans see education reform as a major part of their strategy to help our least fortunate neighbors.

Of the two proposals, Senator Alexander's Scholarship for Kids Act is the boldest and would fundamentally reshape the federal education-policy landscape in this country. He repeatedly emphasized in remarks today at the American Enterprise Institute that the program would be voluntary for states. Still, states with even limited school-choice programs could feel its impact. Much of the hype deals with the way it would bolster private-school-choice programs, but it would essentially supercharge any school-choice program, including those that allow charter schools or even public-school “open enrollment.” To do this, the bill allows approximately eleven million children to bring an estimated $2,100 scholarship to the school of their choice.

ESEA requirements dealing with assessments and reporting would remain, but many other mandates would be scrapped, as would about eighty programs, funding...

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Ohio slipped one spot in National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ (NAPCS) annual ranking of charter-school laws compared to last year. For the 2014 edition, Ohio ranked 28th out of 43 states and the District of Columbia, lagging well behind national leaders such as Minnesota, Indiana, and Louisiana (ranked first to third, respectively). NAPCS ranks each jurisdiction’s charter law based on twenty components of its model law. These components include inter alia the strength of accountability measures, the transparency of the charter application and renewal processes, and equitable access to operational and facilities funding.

Among the twenty components, Ohio received a best-in-class ranking on just two: “A variety of public charter schools allowed” and “Multiple authorizers available.” (And indeed, Ohio allows seemingly anyone who wants to open one to do so.) Meanwhile, even as the state has a dynamic and wide-open charter-school marketplace, its accountability measures fall short. The state received lackluster marks on its accountability and transparency policies. And, the nail in the proverbial coffin: The state’s funding provisions for charter schools still remain inequitable. On average, Ohio charters receive roughly $2,000 per pupil less than district schools, driven largely by their inability to access local revenue.

NAPCS reported a few incremental improvements in Ohio’s charter-school law over the past year. Such improvements include a $100 per-pupil facilities-funding grant to physical charter schools, a provision that passed in the 2013 state budget bill. This, combined with a number of other small changes, improved Ohio’s score...

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Whitney Marcavage

The American Federation for Children applauds the folks over at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute for stirring up debate about academic accountability within private-school-choice programs via the release of their policy “toolkit” last week. It’s an important conversation to have.

As the only national educational-choice organization that works to elect state policymakers who support parental choice, lobbies for high-quality legislation, and ensures that the laws work for kids, we’ve got a pretty good sense of the policy and political questions regarding accountability in private-school-choice programs. 
We support accountability in publicly funded private-school-choice programs, and our model legislation spells out the very reasonable administrative, financial, and academic accountability measures we believe are necessary to ensure quality, sustainability, and growth in these vitally important programs. Transparency is important for both parents and policymakers, and AFC believes that voucher and scholarship-tax-credit students should take either state assessments or a nationally norm-referenced test and that the results should be reported publicly. It is perfectly reasonable (1) to know whether children enrolled in these programs are making academic progress and (2) to acknowledge and address the issue of whether poor-quality schools should participate in these programs.

It is also important to recognize that the children entering these programs are typically behind their peers academically, regardless of whether they are entering in Kindergarten or higher grades. It is not reasonable to use the snapshot of a voucher student’s first-year test score (state assessment or nationally norm-referenced test) to pass judgment on the school’s performance. It...

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It’s no fun to argue with friends—at least not about serious matters—and worse to find respected colleagues slipping into error or avoiding reality. But that’s my regretful take on where Jay Greene and Rick Hess have headed on the (admittedly tricky) issue of accountability for voucher schools.

The policy question is indisputably important: are voucher-bearing kids, their parents, and the policymakers and taxpayers who make their participation possible well served by the education they acquire at the private schools they attend? Is this a good investment of public dollars? Is it worth the political tussles that such programs invariably trigger?

Similar questions must be asked about youngsters who benefit from tax-credit scholarships, the difference being that the dollars involved in those programs are not actually “public.” Rather, they are monies that never enter the public fisc because they are routed into the scholarship programs instead. But that, too, is an education investment arising from politically fraught decisions by policy makers—and anyone who cares about either an individual child’s education or the cultivation of an educated society must also ask whether these schools are effective.

Believing that these are important matters, we at Fordham have, on several occasions, urged an “accountability” regime for private-school-choice programs that includes both test results and fiscal transparency on the part of participating schools. We’ve also recommended a “sliding scale” whereby a school’s continued participation in the program would hinge in part on the...

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The Smack-Talk Edition

Kathleen and Mike talk Richard Sherman–level smack in this special video edition of the podcast. They tackle Core Knowledge, Rick Hess’s nasty-gram, and Florida’s Common Core two-step. Amber measures teacher-performance trajectories.

Amber's Research Minute

Teacher Performance Trajectories in High and Lower-Poverty Schools,” by Zeyu Xu, Umet Özek, and Michael Hansen, Working Paper 101 (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, American Institutes for Research, July 2013).

Last week, the Fordham Institute released a report with recommendations on accountability in publicly funded private-school-choice programs. The furor it has incited among school-choice advocates around the country (here, here, and here) is palpable but not unexpected. Their concerns are many, but in a Flypaper piece, Mike Petrilli responds that the consequences of bad schools—bad schools of all types—are too real to ignore.

In Ohio, home to five private-school-choice programs (more voucher programs than any other state), the recommendations have not caused an uproar, perhaps because many of the report’s recommendations are already in law within Buckeye borders.

1.) Require that all students who receive a voucher (or tax-credit scholarship) participate in state assessments.

While this is probably the most controversial recommendation, four out of five of Ohio’s programs (all but the Autism Scholarship) already mandate this by law. Ohio’s largest private voucher program, the EdChoice Scholarship, has required participants to take the state assessment from the time it was first proposed. Credit for including this provision goes to the foresight of key players at the time: Governor Bob Taft, House Speaker Jon Husted, and Senate President Bill Harris. With more than 31,000 students now using vouchers in Ohio and the numbers steadily growing every year, there’s no sign that it has had a negative impact on participation by either private schools or students or that it has warped the schools’ autonomy or mission.

2.) Mandate public disclosure of those assessment results,...

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American Girls, the Common Core, and everything in between

Mike and American Girl Michelle tackle accountability in private-school-choice programs, whether people are more likely to favor reform once they know how mediocre their schools are, and how applying “disparate impact theory” to the enforcement of school-discipline rules will lead to nothing but trouble. Amber incentivizes us to learn more about teacher-transfer incentives.

Amber's Research Minute

Transfer Incentives for High-Performing Teachers: Final Results from a Multisite Randomized Experiment by Steven Glazerman, et al., (Washington, D.C.: Mathematica Policy Research and Institute of Education Sciences, November 2013).

This week, we at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute released a “toolkit” for policymakers working to create or expand private-school-choice programs. In it, we argue that students receiving publicly funded scholarships or vouchers should take state assessments and that the results should be reported publicly. Private schools that consistently fail to improve student achievement in math and reading should become ineligible for public subsidies.

Predictably, some of our friends in the school-choice movement—especially those of a more libertarian persuasion—responded with a resounding “Thanks but no thanks.” Jason Bedrick of the Cato Institute acknowledged that our proposal is “well intentioned” but finds it “unpersuasive” and “likely to do [more] harm than good.” Greg Forster, writing on Jay Greene’s blog, calls our proposal a “straddle.” Robert Enlow, president of the Friedman Foundation, argues that public oversight of (publicly funded) private schools would be “prone to political decisions and special interests.” And even Matt Ladner, our comrade-in-arms in the Common Core fight, thinks it’s risky to subject private schools to state accountability policies, given that the latter are such a mess.

None of these anxieties surprised us; in fact, we mention most of them in our toolkit. We understand why some worry that

  • Private schools could feel pressure to conform to state standards, reducing or eliminating the educational diversity that makes them attractive (and effective) in the first place;
  • Achievement-based accountability policies might kick low-performing schools out of choice programs that parents have selected for rational and
  • ...
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