Charters & Choice

Charter schools are quickly becoming a defining feature of Ohio’s public-education landscape, educating over 120,000 children statewide. Also known as “community schools” in Ohio, charter schools have several distinctive characteristics: They are schools of choice, they operate independently of traditional districts (and some state regulation), and they are held contractually accountable for their results by a charter school authorizer.

The “theory of action” behind charters is fairly simple. Empower parents with choice, give schools greater freedom, and hold schools accountable to a contract—and higher student achievement, more innovation, and stronger parental engagement will follow.

But how does theory stack up against reality? Are Ohio charters actually producing better results than their district counterparts? One way to answer this question is by analyzing student achievement data, and since 1999, Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) has been the nation’s foremost independent evaluator of charter school performance. 

Today, CREDO published a report on the academic performance of Ohio charter schools. It found that Buckeye charters, taken as a whole, continue to produce mediocre results. With state test scores in math and reading from the 2007–08 to 2012–13 school years used as the outcome measure, the study found that, on average, Ohio charter students are falling behind their counterparts in district schools. Students lost, on average, fourteen days of learning in reading and forty-three days in math over the course of the school year.

For those who have followed the Fordham Institute’s commentary and research over the...

Jack Schneider

Editor's note: This post is the second entry of a multi-part series of interviews featuring Fordham's own Andy Smarick and Jack Schneider, an assistant professor of education at Holy Cross. It originally appeared in a slightly different form at Education Week's K-12 Schools: Beyond the Rhetoric blog. The first entry can be found here.

Schneider: We ended our previous conversation with some skepticism on my part—about whether the charter model itself (rather than particular charter schools) would be any better than district governance. I'm wondering if you can articulate the theory of action there.

Smarick: My theory of action began with a hypothesis about the problem. The more I studied urban districts, the more I became convinced that there must be a systemic explanation for why none of these entities could muster the results we wanted. A number of books helped me piece together an initial answer, including Kolderie's Creating the Capacity for Change; Hill's Reinventing Public Education; Chubb and Moe's Politics, Markets, and America's Schools; and New Schools for a New Century, which Diane Ravitch edited with Joe Viteritti. 

I also looked outside of education, and I was pleasantly surprised to see the same themes surfacing. I found Osborne and Gaebler's Reinventing Government, Christensen's Innovator's Dilemma, and Foster and Kaplan's Creative Destruction to be invaluable.

Here's where I landed: The urban district was designed as a monopoly, the sole public-school provider that assigned kids to schools based not on their needs or interests but their home addresses. Research tells us,...

Jack Schneider

Editor's note: This post is the first entry of a multi-part series of interviews featuring Fordham's own Andy Smarick and Jack Schneider, an assistant professor of education at Holy Cross. It originally appeared in a slightly different form at Education Week's K-12 Schools: Beyond the Rhetoric blog.

Schneider: I see a place for some charters in the K–12 system, created under particular conditions, and governed by a specific process. 

Some, however, claim that we'd be better off with a system entirely composed of charters

You're a charter booster. Where do you land on this question?

Smarick: In short, I envision a future where all or nearly all of a city's public schools are charter schools. (Note that I'm only discussing city school systems here.)

Though I'm generally disinclined to fundamentally alter longstanding institutions, urban districts have, for fifty years, proven themselves wholly incapable of producing the results our kids deserve. And we're talking about tens of millions of low-income kids who have been assigned to schools in these persistently failing institutions. While I admire the people who have tried their best to improve urban districts, the results fall miles short of what's needed. So we need a dramatic break from how things have been done.

Now, I remain open to the idea of the government running a few urban schools, for example a selective-admissions high school or some other specialty program. But, in general, the government should prepare to get out of the business of operating urban public schools and hand that responsibility off to civil society. 

Schneider: You're right that we see persistent...

I recently wrote about exciting new charter school results in Washington, D.C.. More kids are in high-performing charters, the number of high-performing charters is growing, and the number of struggling charters is shrinking.

But why?

For lots of reasons; D.C. has great school operators that are expanding; the charter law is quite good; the city has valuable support organizations; and public support has helped insulate the sector from unfounded attacks.

But among the most important factors is strong authorizing. That’s why you should read the new case study of the D.C. Public Charter School Board (PCSB).

By way of background, PCSB is regarded as one of the nation’s ablest authorizers. It’s a “single-purpose entity,” meaning that it only does charter authorizing, and its schools educate nearly half of D.C.’s public-school students. (And my Bellwether colleague Sara Mead is a member of its board.)

The report provides solid information on PCSB’s history, structure, schools portfolio, activities, processes, budget, staffing, and governance. Charter authorizing across the nation would improve (and charter performance would improve as a result) if PCSB’s lessons were widely adopted.

Even if you’re not as devoted to chartering as I am, you might want to give the report a look. Charter market share is significant and growing in most big cities, meaning authorizing will have a major bearing on the future of urban public schooling.

In my view, the report’s key shortcoming is that it ignores The...

As my Bellwether colleague (and D.C. Public Charter School Board member) Sara Mead wrote last week, new information on the performance of the Washington, D.C. charter school sector is extremely encouraging. And while the strong and improving achievement scores are terrific news for kids and families in the city, they also offer even more reason to believe that chartering—if done smartly—can replace the district system for delivering public education in America’s cities.

First, the basics and headlines: For several years now, PCSB, the only active charter authorizer in the nation’s capital, has made public the results of its “performance management framework.” This school-assessment tool provides a comprehensive set of information about schools in PCSB’s portfolio. And, more than ever, that information should give us all cheer.

Each school is rated across a number of indicators (and all of that data is accessible), but it is also placed in one of three categories, with “Tier 1” reserved for schools that are excelling and “Tier 3” for schools performing well below expectations.

In 2014, nearly 12,500 students attended twenty-two Tier-1 schools; that was a 9 percent increase over 2013 in the number of students enrolled in outstanding charters. As PCSB notes in its press release, these schools are located throughout the city, and their racial and income demographics reflect the city as a whole. In fact, eight of the top ten scoring schools...

Flanner House Elementary, an Indianapolis charter school, closed just weeks into the 2014–15 school year by a vote of its board (under heavy pressure from the mayor’s office, which was the school’s sponsor) after an investigation revealed widespread cheating on tests in previous years. This seems like a prudent course of action, given the information known and despite the havoc it wreaked on the lives of its students. A protracted closure process would have been far worse for them.

The most striking thing about this story is the praise received by the mayor’s office in the wake of the closure decision. As reported in Education Week

[The Indianapolis mayor's office]…assigned charter-office employees to communicate with parents on a biweekly basis.

"We had a tracker that listed when we called families, the nature of that communication, next steps that we agreed to, and then we worked with those families to meet their needs," which included buying school supplies and new uniforms, Mr. Brown said.

The mayor's office also hosted two enrollment fairs where parents could talk with leaders from nearly 30 schools and could enroll their children on the spot.

"What we saw is that we had a lot of angry families at first that, over time, came to really value the support we gave them, to the point that we had multiple families call our office and say, 'We are so thankful that you made this decision,' " said Mr. Brown. "We didn't feel...

From its inception in 1996 with one unusual school in Chicago, the Cristo Rey education model set out to honor its Catholic roots while simultaneously embracing a new way of preparing economically disadvantaged high school students for future success—not an easy balancing act to pull off. A new report from the Lexington Institute profiles the Cristo Rey model and also looks at how its newest school in San Jose is using an innovative blended-learning approach to move the existing model forward. The success of the network to date has been tremendous. Today, Cristo Rey is a nationwide network of twenty-eight private schools serving 9,000 students, including one school in each of Ohio’s three largest cities. Ninety-six percent of network students are minority (largely Hispanic) and 100 percent are economically disadvantaged (defined as families earning less than 75 percent of the national median income). Each student's family contributes an average of $1,000 toward tuition. Employers in the school's corporate work-study program provide most of the balance needed to cover operations. The work-study model requires students to work at least one day a week in the community while keeping up with rigorous high school coursework; in lieu of wages, companies donate money to the schools. (More than 2,000 employers invested upwards of $44 million in the Cristo Rey Network of schools in 2013–14.) Cristo Rey’s school day and year are extended, including a summer preparatory program to get students up to speed on both academic and work life. The results are...

Can a state’s charter school sector improve over time? Yes, finds this new study of Texas charter schools. Using student data collected from 2001 to 2011, a period of explosive charter school growth in Texas, researchers examined trends in the charter-quality distribution, as measured by value-added results on math and reading test scores. They discovered that in the early- to mid-2000s, charter-sector quality fell considerably short of district quality. But by 2011, the charter-quality distribution improved, converging to virtual parity with district quality. The magnitude of the quality shift in Texas charters, note the researchers, is large and substantial (0.11 and 0.20 standard deviations in math and reading, respectively). What is the source of the quality improvement? The main reason is strikingly straightforward: Lower value-added charter schools tended to shutter over time, while higher value-added schools entered the sector. Meanwhile, schools that remained open throughout the whole period also demonstrated improvement over time. The researchers next peel back the layers of the sector-improvement onion. They discover three contributing factors: First, Texas charters have attracted students of higher achievement levels (i.e., positive “selection”), possibly leading to positive peer effects captured in the value-added results. Second, charters have experienced less student turnover as the sector has matured. Third, the analysts find evidence that the growth of schools classified as “no-excuses” charters has propelled overall sector quality. The policy takeaways for Ohio are twofold: One, it takes time for high-quality schools to edge low-quality ones out of the school marketplace. (And authorizers...

Earlier this year, the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) published its annual report on charter quality. Their analysis makes an interesting observation: The school-quality distribution across California charters forms a “u-shaped curve.” In contrast, however, when I look at Ohio charters, a different quality distribution emerges. Instead of u-shaped curve, Ohio has a rectangular-looking distribution. So while California charters are more likely to be very high or low quality, Ohio charters seem to be more evenly distributed across the quality spectrum. The shape of the quality “curves” suggests different policy strategies might be needed to lift overall sector quality in Ohio compared to California.

Let us first look at the school-quality data. Chart 1 displays the distribution of charter quality in California, as reported by CCSA. Its analysis uses school-level test and demographic data, along with statistical methods, to calculate a school-quality measure (“predicted API”). The analysis is somewhat akin to the “value-added” analysis used in Ohio, though also cruder since it employs school not student-level data.[1] The analysis divides the quality spectrum into twenty equal intervals and reports the percentage of charters falling into each interval.

When CCSA mapped the quality of California charters, it found a disproportionate number of schools at tails of the distribution. For example, 15 percent of charters fell within the top-five percent of all public schools statewide along its quality measure. At the other end, 9 percent of charters were rated in the bottom-five percent of all schools. (If...

The facility arrangements of one Ohio charter school recently came under fire in a Columbus Dispatch exposé. An investigation discovered that roughly half of the school’s budget was dedicated to rental payments, potentially shortchanging teaching and learning. But this episode isn’t an isolated case; many Buckeye charters have struggled to secure adequate facilities. How can Ohio policymakers and school leaders better ensure that charters have the facilities they need at a reasonable cost? First, they should consult this new report from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), which contains a wealth of information on charter-school facilities funding from both private and public sources. The report includes descriptions of the key nonprofits in charter-facilities financing, including the Charter School Growth Fund, Capital Impact Partners, Low Income Investment Fund, and LISC. These nonprofits—twenty in all—have provided an impressive $2 billion in direct financing for charter facilities (e.g., loans and grants). When it comes to state support for charter facilities, Ohio has been woefully stingy. The state provided, for the first time in 2013, per-pupil funding to support the facility costs of brick-and-mortar charters (up to $100 per-pupil). But other jurisdictions are far less tightfisted. For example, Washington, D.C., Arizona, and Minnesota provide more than $1,000 per-pupil for facilities; four other states provide between $250 and $1,000 per pupil. To make matters worse, Ohio has not appropriated any funds to support its charter school loan program and provides no charter-facilities grants. Again, other jurisdictions do much...

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