Charters & Choice

“Public education sometimes seems to operate on its own planet, immune to the conventions that bind other areas of our economy and public life,” writes Nelson Smith in this National Alliance for Public Charter Schools report. He further explains (in a companion Education Next article) that “school districts have largely lost their monopoly on education programming, but are still the only game in town when it comes to financing, developing, and deploying public school buildings.” Of the forty-two states that now have charter laws on the books, only eleven offer direct support for facilities expenses, and only three provide more than $1,000 per pupil toward these costs. Charters have no taxing power, no access to state capital budgets, and often no bonding authority. What’s more, when states do enact laws offering facilities aid to charters, these statutes are too often interpreted away or disregarded. Smith’s exposé offers an historical account of the situation and current examples of how it plays out in states and districts. Smith concludes with three potential approaches to facilities-portfolio management. The “Real Estate Trust” would put a single state entity in charge of all school facilities; schools (both public and charter) would receive faculties funding...

For two decades now, school-choice supporters have advanced two main arguments. First, it’s unfair to trap poor kids in failing schools when better options are available. And second, giving these kids a choice will force the entire public-education system to improve.

Those assertions are still compelling, but they have their limitations. Namely: What about kids who aren’t poor; attend schools that aren’t failing; and live in school districts that, by some measures at least, aren’t in dire need of improvement? I’m talking, of course, about our affluent, leafy suburbs. Do their residents deserve school choice too?

Suburban Landscape (1989)
Why shouldn't suburban residents enjoy options for public schooling?
Photo by Hunter Desportes.

Set aside, for a moment, the fact that many suburban communities are diversifying, with low-income and otherwise disadvantaged children moving into them in greater numbers than ever before. Forget, too, that even our best suburban districts are no great shakes when judged by international comparison. Focus just on the most...

As I reported last week, Ohio charter schools received a bad rap in recent articles by The Economist. After singing the praises of charters in some of America’s largest cities, The Economist went on to disparage Ohio’s charters, stating that they “have done badly.” I didn’t disagree with their appraisal.

Why the agreement? It’s because the standard matters.

So in Ohio, charters are "bad" compared to what standard? To answer, I take a slice of data from Cleveland to look at the performance of its charter schools relative two comparison groups. First, I compare how Cleveland’s charters stack up against Cleveland Municipal School District (the city’s traditional public school). Second, I compare Cleveland's charters against a broader set of public districts--all districts in Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland Municipal, poorer inner-ring suburban districts, and some affluent suburban districts.

I use the fourth grade math proficiency rate—essentially, the proportion of students who “pass” Ohio’s annual standardized test in a given grade and subject—for the 2010-11 school year. And by using what’s called a “z-score” in statistics, I calculate how far each school's proficiency rate is above or below the average proficiency (pass) rate.[1] A school...

The first results of the statewide testing of Indiana’s voucher students shows generally good marks for private schools participating in the program.  The group School Choice Indiana recently highlighted that voucher schools had an average 91 percent pass rate on the language arts portion of the test known as ISTEP+ and had an average 89 percent pass rate on the math portion. These exceeded the public school averages.

Rays of Light
Indiana deserves credit for shinging light on the performance of schools with voucher students.
Photo by Yorick_R.

In fact, NPR’s StateImpact Indiana reports that 171 of the 224 private schools in Indiana participating in the state’s new voucher program posted higher-than-average passing rates, and the average ISTEP+ pass rate at all schools receiving vouchers was 9 percentage points higher than the state’s overall average. But StateImpact also looked more closely at the schools that posted lower-than-average passing rates. Although that number only came to 41 voucher schools, those schools enrolled, on average, higher concentrations of...

Charter schools may be celebrating twenty years of existence, but the milestone gets most of them no closer to the surplus classroom space and facility financing controlled by local school boards.

Charters struggle to access surplus classroom space and facility financing controlled by local school boards.

Where local facility financing and public school space has come through for charters, it’s been at the behest of mayors, governors, and legislators who understand that charter schools are public schools and any system that obstructs their ability to get classroom space treats some public school students differently from others. Consider one example that Nelson Smith highlights in the current Education Next: Milwaukee Public Schools had been spending $1 million a year to maintain twenty-seven surplus school buildings that they refused to sell to charter schools. Why sell to the competition? The state legislature had to step in to allow the City of Milwaukee to sell the buildings over the school district’s objections.

Most states that have charter school laws, even laws that provide charters with at least some facility funding, can tell similar stories, and changing the circumstances isn’t easy. When a Florida senator wanted to force school districts to share ...

Mike is from Mars; Kathleen is from Venus

Kathleen and Mike wonder how to hold states accountable in twenty-seven different ways and debate whether gender-specific curricula make sense. Amber dives deep into census data on edu-spending.

Amber's Research Minute

Public Education Finances Report - United States Census

Would Henry V have benefitted from an all-boys school? David Brooks, in his critique of the American school scene, doesn’t look to single-gender schools to re-engage children like the rambunctious and adversarial Prince Hal, but officials at the U.S. Department of Education surely had boys like him in mind when they relaxed restrictions on single-sex public education six years ago.

prince hal and the moon
Perhaps Prince Hal could've used an all-boys school.
Photo by Kevin Rawlings.

Those revised Title IX regulations allowed single-sex education to flourish. Nearly 400 public schools nationwide currently offer single-gender classrooms (ten years ago, there were only a dozen) and another 116 schools exist to serve either all boys or all girls. The freedom to establish these schools comes with a sensible caveat: The option must be voluntary for families. An Associated Press report last week radiated more heat than light on this growth, but it reminded us of the move to engage children like Henry...

The folks at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice have put out a call for research proposals that explore the effects that choice and competition have on K-12 education.

The foundation is looking for proposals from individual researchers or groups of researchers on any school choice topic related to vouchers, education savings accounts, and tax credit scholarships. Accepted projects will receive contracts that range from $5,000 to $15,000, and priority will go to research that has implications for choice program design, policymaking and advocacy.

Proposals should be 800 words or less and should be submitted no later than 5PM September 4 to Paul DiPerna, the Friedman Foundation’s research director, at or at One American Square, Suite 2420, Indianapolis, IN 46282. Researchers should include a cover sheet identifying the primary project contact as well as names(s), affiliation, telephone, and e-mail address. Those who submit proposals will learn of their status by November 15.

See here for suggested topics and a suggested proposal structure.

Ohio charters are gaining an international reputation—but for all the wrong reasons. In articles over the weekend, The Economist chides Ohio charters for having “done badly” and operating without oversight in a “Wild West” environment. And these remarks are written in articles that praise charters schools.

With every financial scandal and every school closing due to academic failure, Ohio’s charters face greater and greater scrutiny—as they should.

With a prominent global publication taking our charter schools to task, readers around the world—from New York City to London to Tokyo—now know what many of us locally know too well. Ohio’s charter sector has failed to deliver. Despite some exceptional schools (e.g., DECA in Dayton, Constellation Schools and Breakthrough in Cleveland, KIPP and Columbus Collegiate Academy in Columbus), charters in Ohio—as a group—have far too often disappointed students and parents who placed their hopes in these schools. With every financial scandal and every school closing due to academic failure, Ohio’s charters face greater and greater scrutiny—as they should.

We’ve repeatedly recognized here, here, here, here, and here that Ohio’s charters have, as a whole, not delivered and need improvement. Other states do it...

Despite persistent hostility to charter school expansion in most states, there remains one aspect of charter schooling that fails to get the attention it deserves: athletics.

The limitations on charter school students’ access to sports penalize children and parents for choosing an alternative to a traditional public school. With considerable research showing the positive contribution that athletics participation has towards academic success, depriving students of this opportunity is not only unjust, it’s counterproductive to raising student achievement.

American Football
The actions of policymakers against charter school athletics are emblematic of the treatment of charters at large.
Photo by Anderson Mancini.

It is no coincidence that in areas where charter schools have proven academically effective and where they capture a larger share of the student population—Washington, DC, and New Orleans, in particular—charter school sports teams are finally gaining acceptance. An editorial in the Washington Post praised athletics director Clark Ray and noted that a “cruel inequity is coming to an end with the long-overdue decision...