Charters & Choice

Next week, in a series daily blog posts, Jay Greene and I will explore areas of agreement and disagreement around the issue of school choice and school quality. In particular, we will address the question: Are math and reading test results strong enough indicators of school quality that regulators can rely on them to determine which schools should be closed and which should be expanded—even if parental demand is inconsistent with test results?

The school choice tent is much bigger than it used to be. Politicians and policy wonks across the ideological spectrum have embraced the principle that parents should get to choose their children’s schools and local districts should not have a monopoly on school supply.

But within this big tent there are big arguments about the best way to promote school quality. Some want all schools to take the same tough tests, and for low-performing schools (those that fail to show individual student growth over time) to be shut down (or, in a voucher system, to be kicked out of the program). Others want to let the market work to promote quality and resist policies that amount to second-guessing parents.

Look for the first post, from Jay, on Monday....

Since their inception in 1999, Buckeye charter schools have grown rapidly. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), Ohio had just over fifty-nine thousand charter students in 2004–05; ten years later, that number had more than doubled to 122,000 students, representing 7 percent of the public school population. These statistics demonstrate the impressive and sustained growth of the charter movement in Ohio; but where do most charters students live? Are they evenly distributed throughout the state or heavily concentrated in a few areas? Which cities have the largest charter “enrollment share,” and what areas of the state have very few charter students? Answers to these questions can help us identify opportunities for growth and partnership—and even make the case for policy change.

To conduct this analysis, I use the enrollment data from the state’s District Payment Reports (FY 2015: Final #3 payment). These reports display the number of charter students who live within the jurisdiction of each district (on a full-time equivalent basis), so we can count students by their districts of residence.[1] This analysis of charter enrollment yields three main takeaways.

The majority of charter students live in urban areas...

Since the passage of House Bill 2, much attention has been paid to how Ohio’s charter sector can build on policy reforms and improve itself. With the imminent (we hope) arrival of federal Charter Schools Program grant dollars, Ohio has a better opportunity than ever to raise its charter game. There are already several charter networks and schools doing great work, but the Buckeye State still has tens of thousands of students, especially in urban areas, enrolled in low-quality schools. It’s time for Ohio to start recruiting top-notch charter management organizations (CMOs) to increase the number of high-quality seats. But how?

Enter a recent report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) that examines the best way for state and local leaders to recruit high-performing CMOs. The report is based on a 2015 survey conducted by NAPCS and the Foundation for Excellence in Education of over twenty high-performing CMOs. Authors compiled the results and pinpointed the elements that CMOs consider when deciding whether and where to expand.

One of the most useful aspects of the report is its analysis of the three types of charter markets: “emerging,” “risk-reward,” and...

In 2014, we hosted our first-ever Wonkathon, which was dedicated to the subject of charter school policy. Joe Siedlecki of the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation was voted the wisest, wonkiest wonk of all.

Last year, we returned with a sequel focused on the implementation of education savings accounts in Nevada. Seth Rau, then at Nevada Succeeds, took home the big prize despite (or perhaps because of) his colorful analogy.

For 2016, we’re taking a look at the new federal law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, and its potential for expanding parental choice. We’ve asked a select group of education policy wonks to respond to the following prompt: 

Many observers credit No Child Left Behind with contributing to the significant expansion of parental choice in American education over the past fifteen years. It wasn't necessarily the school choice provisions contained in the law (which were limited and poorly designed), but what its passage did to shine a spotlight on school failure and create a sense that better schools were desperately needed.

Likewise, some in the school choice movement are disappointed that the new Every Student Succeeds Act doesn't do much legislatively to promote choice. But are they overlooking the law's potential?...

Choice as a means to drive school improvement is a simple enough idea: If parents are permitted choose where to send their kids to school, they will (in theory) maximize what they value—good schools, presumably—while minimizing their effort and risk to get it. And (also in theory) no one should be more motivated to get what they value than those who currently can’t gain access to it.

As the authors of this paper note, however, studies have tended to find that this simple idea doesn’t always play out that way in real life. The students most likely to move to a higher-quality school are typically already higher-achieving and less likely to live in poverty.

Post-Katrina New Orleans turns out not to be an exception to the rule. On average, the authors find, high-achieving NOLA students switch to high-quality schools, and low-achieving students transfer to low-quality schools. This is “suggestive evidence of a stratified school system and may lead to increased student segmentation based on student achievement and school quality,” they note.

The study, one of the first on student mobility in post-Katrina New Orleans, examines student-level data from 2007 to 2011. “It is clear some students are taking advantage of...

Rob Kimball

Outliers make for great stories and headlines, but they don’t do much for policy discussions—particularly school choice policy. Recently, there has been a flurry of headlines citing tales of “extreme sacrifice” by Detroit students in their efforts to commute great distances to the schools of their choice. The reality is that the majority of Detroit students, charter or traditional, don’t travel farther than four miles or ten minutes to school.

Using 2013–14 data from over one hundred thousand Detroit students’ homes and enrolling schools, Data Driven Detroit conducted a study with the Skillman Foundation and Excellent Schools Detroit to better understand the school commute. They grouped students’ residences into census tracts and measured the driving distance to schools, finding that the average K–8 charter school commute was 3.53 miles. The average high school commute was 4.92 miles.

With Google Maps’ new Direction and Distance APIs, we can estimate commute times and the most direct street routes with updated streetscape data. Using a sample of home addresses from 9,579 Detroit students enrolled in eighteen charter schools authorized by Grand Valley State University, we found that the typical student travels 3.5 miles and 8.9 minutes to school. This trend is consistent with...

In the wake of Prince’s untimely death on Thursday, the world marks the passing of a multi-talented performer and musical polymath. Prince Rogers Nelson was one of his generation’s most gifted songwriters; a virtuosic guitarist; a compelling (if somewhat enigmatic) screen presence; and a champion for the sartorial cause of purple. Even his most dedicated fans may not realize, however, that he leaves behind a legacy in the realm of education as well.

The High School for Recording Arts (HSRA), located in St. Paul, Minnesota—essentially Prince’s backyard—is a charter school focused on project-based learning for students interested in music and recording. Among other perks, it boasts a student-operated record label and a weekly timeslot on local radio, all with the goal of leading at-risk kids from idleness and poverty to lives of creative fulfillment. The school released a statement today mourning the musician’s death and discussing his influence on its mission. “The history of the charter school is inextricably connected to the artist known as Prince, and his spirit has always permeated through the music studios, classrooms, and hallways of HSRA,” it begins.

HSRA’s founder, David Ellis, was a troubled student himself. In the 1980s, he toiled fruitlessly at the...

Renée N. Stoeckle

Pope Francis is exhorting church leaders across the globe to join the school choice movement.

Earlier this month, Pope Francis issued the second apostolic exhortation of his papacy, Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”). The document is not official church doctrine, but rather a public teaching of the pope that calls the faithful to action on a particular subject—in this case, the modern family. Given that this pope has issued only two apostolic exhortations in his three-year papacy, the inclusion of school choice speaks volumes about Francis’s priorities.

In Amoris Laetitia, the pontiff reiterates the church’s teaching that choice in education is a fundamental right of parents “of which no one may claim to deprive them”—meaning the state must not deny parents the right to select their children’s educational path, be it public or private, regardless of their financial means.

Francis calls upon the state to provide educational opportunities for all families, but he emphasizes that “parents themselves enjoy the right to choose freely the kind of education—accessible and of good quality—which they wish to give their children in accordance with their convictions” (paragraph eighty-four).

Amoris Laetitia comes in response to last fall’s “Synod on the Family,” a weeks-long global meeting of Catholic Bishops...

The cause of school choice took a major step forward in Florida last week when Governor Rick Scott signed a bill codifying open enrollment and increasing funding for charter schools. The new law directs $75 million toward capital projects for the state’s 650 charter schools, weighted especially toward those that serve disabled students or those from low-income families. (In addition to the funding carrot, legislators introduced an accountability stick: Charters will now submit compulsory financial statements on a monthly or quarterly basis, and those that receive F ratings for two consecutive years will be automatically shuttered.) But the headline result is undoubtedly the introduction of open enrollment, which will allow students—with particular preference given to highly mobile kids in military families and foster care—to attend any public school in the state with slots open.

Scant weeks after their narrow victory in the Supreme Court’s Friedrichs case, teachers’ unions have won another critical battle—this time at the state level—with a friendly ruling in Vergara v. California. A three-judge appeals court panel overturned the original ruling from Judge Rolf Treu, which invalidated state laws around teacher tenure and due process rights. The case, which hinges on guarantees of equitable education...

It strikes me, and several others with whom I’ve spoken in recent months, that education reform is at a turning point. It’s not just the new federal law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, which sends key decisions back to the states. It’s bigger than that—a sense of exhaustion with policy as the primary driver of educational change.

To be sure, there are many policy battles still to fight and win in almost every state: to ensure that school and teacher accountability do not disappear, to defend and expand high-quality charter schools and other forms of parental choice, to do something about chronically low-performing schools, to see that high-achieving poor kids don’t go ignored, and much more.  

It’s as critical as ever that advocacy organizations like the newly merged 50CAN and StudentsFirst attract the funding and talent to ensure that kid-centered laws and regulations are put in place from sea to shining sea. The teachers’ unions—newly energized after their near-death experience in the Friedrichs case and their victory in Vergara—surely have the money and resolve to push hard in the opposite direction. And when it comes to preserving the status quo and not threatening any adult interests, they have plenty of allies. But...

Pages