Charters & Choice

Matthew Levey

Choice and fairness are sometimes cast as values in opposition. This arises from the view that it is unfair to allow some parents to choose their child’s school when others won’t (or can’t). Ultimately, however, choice is the highest form of fairness because it rewards positive behavior and aligns the interests of parents, children, and schools.

This week, I’ll examine the issue from a societal perspective. Next week, I will look at choice from the vantage of the individual family.

Some families can afford private school tuition—often more than $40,000 in New York, and close to that figure in several other major cities. Others move to a suburban district with high property taxes that signify (supposedly) good schools. Some apply to gifted and talented programs. In Brooklyn, we even have a few un-zoned district schools that admit students via lottery. When parents exercise these choices, they are not denounced for acting ‘unfairly.’  The admissions processes of these schools are seldom criticized.

But critics say charter schools that admit kids via lotteries, such as the one my school conducted last week, aren’t fair: We don’t attract enough needy kids, our needy kids aren't needy enough, we don't serve enough special education children, and so on.

As the school’s founder, I spent two years asking parents from across Brooklyn to consider the International Charter School for their kids; I am pleased that many did.

In the week before registration closed, two parents attended our meetings. One mom, who emigrated from Mexico,...

We recently looked at an analysis of New Orleans school leaders’ perceptions of competition and their responses to it. The top response was marketing—simply shouting louder to parents about a school’s existing programs, or adding bells and whistles. If schools are academically strong, this is probably fine. But if academically weak schools can pump up their enrollment (and their funding streams) by simply touting themselves to parents more effectively than competing schools, then the intended effect of competition—improved performance among all players in the market—will be blunted or absent all together.

In New Orleans, it appears that the more intense competition is perceived to be, the more likely schools are to improve academic quality as a means of differentiation. Is a similar thing happening in the Buckeye State? Here’s a look at some anecdotal evidence on quality-centered competition effects.

New school models

Large urban school districts in Ohio have long decried the students “stolen” from them by charter schools, and nothing rankles diehard traditionalists like online schools. So it was a little surprising to find that Akron City Schools’ proposed 2015–16 budget contains a huge technology component, including plans to start an in-house online charter school. This is being done in collaboration with Reynoldsburg City Schools, a district that knows a thing or two about innovation for improvement. Akron is aiming to recruit three hundred elementary students who are currently either home-schooled or attending a charter school, as well as forty in-district high school students...

Back in January, the Education Research Alliance (ERA) for New Orleans released a study looking at patterns of parental choice in the highly competitive education marketplace. That report showed non-academic considerations (bus transportation, sports, afterschool care) were often bigger factors than academic quality when parents choose a school. It also suggested strongly that it was possible for other players in the system (city officials, charter authorizers, the SEA) to assert the primacy of academic quality by a number of means (type and style of information available to parents, a central application system). A new report from ERA-New Orleans follows up on this by examining school-level responses to competition, using interview and survey data from thirty schools of all types across the city. Nearly all of the surveyed school leaders reported having at least one competitor for students, and most schools reported more than one response to that competition. The most commonly reported response, cited by twenty-five out of thirty schools, was marketing existing school offerings more broadly. Less common responses to competition included improving academic instruction and making operational changes like budget cuts so that the need to compete for more students (and money) is less pressing. These latter two adaptations are typically the ones that market-based education reformers expect to occur in the face of competition, yet just one-third of surveyed leaders said they responded in these ways. That low level of response in this hypercompetitive market should be worrying. While advertising is an obvious first response to...

John H. "Skip" McKoy
Scott Pearson

Andy Smarick is clearly disappointed with the op-ed we authored in the Washington Post. We argued that, for many reasons, the rough balance we have in Washington, D.C. between charter schools and traditional public schools is serving our children well.

We don’t want to debate Andy’s points one by one. Nor do we want to repeat many of the smart observations made by D.C. Public Charter School Board (PCSB) member (and Smarick’s Bellwether colleague) Sara Mead in her recent post.

But we do want to clarify a few points that may have been ambiguous in the Post article, as we fear the lack of clarity may have contributed to Andy’s alarm and could possibly concern other education reformers.

First, this does not signal a slowdown in PCSB’s authorizing. PCSB has approved seventeen schools in the past three years. There is no intention on the part of PCSB’s staff—nor, to our knowledge, PCSB’s other board members—to stop approving strong charter applications. And there has been no slowdown in our efforts to support growth by high-performing charters already in D.C.  

There are still tens of thousands of children in D.C. attending low-performing schools.  Over eight thousand individual students are on charter school waitlists. On top of this, 2,500 new students come to D.C. each year. And PCSB’s constant oversight has led to the closure of many low-performing schools and campuses...

If you’re at all interested in school choice, you really should read a trio of recent reports.

They’re unusually informative. The CREDO study on urban chartering found that most city-based charter school sectors are producing substantially more academic growth than comparable district-run schools (others’ take on the report here, here, and here).

The Brookings “Education Choice and Competition Index” rates the school choice environment in 107 cities. An interactive tool helps you see how the cities compare with one another on everything from the accessibility of non-assigned educational options and the availability of school information to policies on enrollment, funding, and transportation.

The NACSA report on state policies associated with charter school accountability attempts to describe how laws, regulations, and authorizer practices interact to influence charter quality. The report translates NACSA’s excellent “principles and standards” for quality authorizing into a tool for describing, assessing, and comparing states (TBFI Ohio on the report here).

I could write at length about the finer points of each. They all have valuable arguments and findings.

But I want to call your attention to something in particular. The Brookings and NACSA reports assess environmental conditions (inputs) that might influence charter school performance (outputs). The CREDO study gauges charters’ academic growth relative to district-run schools (an output measure).

So I created two scatter plots to see how each of the inputs correlates with the output. For CREDO, I use an average of each city’s reading...

D.C.’s charter school sector stands as a shining example of what urban chartering can accomplish for kids in need.

It has outstanding results and serves a student population that mirrors the District’s. Just as importantly, it refutes the simplistic narrative that a New Orleans-style system is only possible through a natural disaster. The D.C. charter sector has grown methodically for almost two decades, now serving nearly half the city’s public school students.

It is demonstrating that the district can be replaced in a gradual, deliberate fashion.

It could offer America’s cities an invaluable new example of an all-charter approach. NOLA’s pioneering Recovery School District-led system is hugely promising, but D.C.’s Public Charter School Board (PCSB)-led system could potentially show us even better strategies.

Unfortunately—almost unbelievably—that won’t come to pass should PCSB’s current leadership have its way.

In a Washington Post op-ed and Education Next article, the board’s executive director and chair explain that they don’t want high-quality charters to become the system or even to predominate. They want “balance” with the district.

Their justification reflects an unwarranted deference to the status quo, a surprising dearth of vision in tackling emergent challenges, and a lack of appreciation for the half-century failure of America’s urban districts.

They say DCPS is “strong and successful.” But according to 2013 NAEP TUDA, it still has the lowest eighth-grade reading scores of every participating city.

They say DCPS is...

Andy delivered a shortened version of the following comments at a PPI launch event for Hill & Jochim’s new book, A Democratic Constitution for Public Education.

Thank you for having me here. I’m thrilled to talk about this great new book, which, incidentally, all of you should go out and buy immediately. I’m a big fan of Ashley’s work at CRPE, and Abby played a crucial role in advancing D.C.’s system of schools during her time as deputy mayor.

Paul’s and David’s contributions over more than two decades have hugely influenced my thinking. I’m honored to be on this panel with them.

There’s so much to like about this book, but I only have ten minutes. So for that reason, and because I’m generally a malcontent, I’m going to focus mostly on the questions and half-concerns I have. But please don’t infer anything other than this: I think Paul and Ashley’s book is terrific.

I’ll focus on three points.

First, the book does an excellent job helping the reader understand the district’s four categories of activities, which need to be disaggregated, repackaged, and reassigned as the district loses its place as the monopoly school provider.

Second, over the last twenty years, American cities have taken two different paths to systemic reform. This book’s recommendations land differently for cities in the different categories.

Third, unlike most books, Paul and Ashley’s could and should have an immediate positive influence in a number of cities.

The book helps us see that when the...

The National Conference of State Legislatures has put together a nice primer on accountability for private school choice programs. Twenty-three states, one Colorado district, and the District of Columbia presently have such programs, including “traditional” tuition vouchers, education savings accounts, scholarship tax credits, and personal tax credits or deductions. Accountability requirements for schools participating in such programs vary widely. Most states require: 1) a measure of school quality (whether via student assessment data or outside accreditation), 2) determination of financial strength and sustainability, and 3) meeting minimum seat-time requirements. Once private schools are permitted to accept voucher students and public dollars begin to flow, the range of accountability measures—and the consequences of failing to meet them—broadens. Programs differ by the tests they require participating students to take (the same state assessments as their public school peers or tests of the schools’ own choosing), how and to whom test results are reported, whether outside accreditation can substitute for testing, and the level and timing of sanctions related to low performance. NCSL’s report provides an overview of the varying ways that these accountability measures function in Louisiana, Indiana, and Wisconsin. As we concluded in Fordham’s private school choice policy toolkit last year, “private schools must maintain their autonomy and the qualities that make them worth choosing,” but a “sound balance” is needed between that autonomy and the need for taxpayers to know that their education dollars are being spent on “bona fide educational achievement.” NCSL’s report provides helpful context for state...

Here’s the top-line takeaway from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes’s (CREDO) comprehensive Urban Charter Schools Report, which is meant to measure the effectiveness of these schools of choice: For low-income urban families, charter schools are making a significant difference. Period.

CREDO looked at charter schools in forty-one urban areas between school years 2006–07 and 2011–12. Compared to traditional public schools in the same areas, charters collectively provide “significantly higher levels of annual growth in both math and reading”—the equivalent of forty days of additional learning per year in math and twenty-eight additional days in reading. As a group, urban charters have been particularly good for black, Hispanic, and English language learner (ELL) subpopulations. Indeed, putting the word “urban” before the phrase “charter school” is becoming somewhat redundant. As Sara Mead recently pointed out, urban students comprise only a quarter of students nationally, but more than half (56 percent) of those enrolled in charters. Thus, perhaps the most encouraging finding in the study is that the learning gains associated with urban charter schools seem to be accelerating. In the 2008–09 school year, CREDO found charter attendance producing an average of twenty-nine additional days of learning for students in math and twenty-four additional days of learning in reading. By 2011–12, it was fifty-eight additional days of math and forty-one of reading.

Not all that glitters is gold, of course. There’s no inherent magic to the word “charter” on the front door of a school. The relative success of urban...

I didn’t see common enrollment systems coming.

When I started writing The Urban School System of the Future in 2009, I didn’t foresee the extent of the complications associated with parental choice in cities with expansive networks of accessible schools. At that point, the vast majority of city kids were still assigned to schools, and the conventional wisdom was that this would be the case for years to come.

My, how things have changed.

New Orleans is now a virtually all-charter system. Detroit and D.C. have about half of their kids in charters; in Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Kansas City, and Cleveland it’s more than 30 percent.

This growth is great. Kids in urban charters learn more in math and reading, and the benefits are being realized most by disadvantaged students. It’s forcing city leaders to rethink the operations, oversight, and governance of public schools (see Camden, Memphis, and Detroit).

But—as explained in a primer by CRPE—if cities simply add more choice schools in the absence of changes to the enrollment process, parents can struggle to find information on schools, be forced to fill out widely varying school applications, and then receive a staggered barrage of acceptance and rejection notices.

Common enrollment systems can help solve this.

They use a single application that allows families to rank their preferences, then match students with schools using an algorithm that takes into account student priorities and school characteristics.

A number of cities are headed...

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