Charters & Choice

We are excited to share that the nationally renowned Building Excellent Schools (BES) Fellowship program is in Columbus this week to visit and study the United Schools Network (USN). USN is comprised of Columbus Collegiate Academy – Main, and Columbus Collegiate Academy – West. Both schools have been recognized for producing outstanding academic results in schools where a majority of students are economically disadvantaged (92 percent at Main, 100 percent at West).

Building Excellent Schools’ core work is to raise the quality of urban charter schools to ensure that all students have the opportunity to receive the education they deserve. Their highly selective fellowship has seeded more than 60 schools in 20 cities serving 20,000 students nationwide. Over the next two years, those numbers will grow to over 130 campuses in 30 cities.

Individuals selected as fellows focus on closing the achievement gap in some of the highest need communities across the country. Fellows spend a year studying how to design, found, and lead a charter school. During that year, fellows master school design and leadership, operations, governance, and external relations. Fellows also visit over 30 high-performing schools around the country, engage in a month-long residency in an excellent school, and interact with subject-area experts.

On-site study, such as that taking place at the Columbus Collegiate schools this week, is one of the lynchpins of the practice-based BES Fellowship. Columbus Collegiate Academy – Main, the flagship school, was founded in 2008 by 2006 BES Fellow Andrew Boy. In...

Every year, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers draws on survey data from half of the nation’s charter-school authorizers to assess the quality of their practices, outlining a set of twelve essential practices and scoring authorizers based on their adherence to them. In this sixth edition, the results are mixed. Most practices are adopted by at least 80 percent of authorizers, but rates of adoption have decreased in seven practices since 2012. According to the report’s authors, an influx of small, new authorizing agencies negatively diluted the numbers. Smaller authorizers (which tend to be local education agencies) scored lower on average than their larger counterparts. Some of the practices outlined by NASCA—such as having designated staff work on authorizing functions—inherently favor larger entities that can devote more resources to the job. However, this report also highlights the relative lack of explicit criteria for charter renewal, which any authorizer can adopt. Size matters, but small scale is no excuse for poor oversight.

SOURCE: National Association of Charter School Authorizers, The State of Charter School Authorizers 2013 (Chicago, IL: National Association of Charter School Authorizers, May 2014).

For families seeking more than what their child’s assigned school offers, “school choice” has long been a cherished solution. And it’s made strong headway on the U.S. education-policy front. Millions of girls and boys now enjoy access to a range of educational options thanks to innovative school-choice policies.

Sometimes, however, changing schools isn’t the optimal solution—perhaps because no better options are available within a reasonable commute, because the state doesn’t have a viable choice policy, or because the student’s present school is satisfactory in all but a couple of areas. Enter “course choice,” a strategy for widening the education options available to youngsters. As a new white paper from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute argues, it has the potential to dramatically expand access to high-quality courses for many more children from many more backgrounds and locales than we have thus far managed.

Rather than asking kids in need of a better shake to change homes, forsake their friends, or take long bus rides, course choice enables them to learn from the best teachers in the state or nation while staying in their neighborhood schools. It grants them access to an array of course offerings that no one school can realistically gather under its roof, while offering a new revenue opportunity for schools and additional income for public-school teachers. How many Sal Khans are in our schools today just waiting for an opportunity to expand their...

Last week was National Charter School Week and, to celebrate, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the “Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act.” This was an exciting occasion for us Washington-based policy wonks, starved as we are for any legislative action on education. But it also offered a window into the thinking of charter opponents, especially the teacher unions.

Note in particular this amendment offered by Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee:

The State entity will ensure that charter schools and local educational agencies serving charter schools post on their websites materials with respect to charter school student recruitment, student orientation, enrollment criteria, student discipline policies, behavior codes, and parent contract requirements, including any financial obligations (such as fees for tutoring or extracurricular activity).

The amendment failed 179–220, on a mostly party-line vote. Randi Weingarten expressed disappointment in an AFT press release:

There are still major gaps in the bill, such as on enrollment criteria that traditional public schools always follow. Several representatives, including Sheila Jackson Lee, Kathy Castor and Gwen Moore, pushed for additional measures to level the playing field based on their own or their constituents' charter school experiences. But for some reason, these amendments were rejected—presumably because some prefer to give preferential treatment to charter schools. We want preferential treatment for all our children.

What’s this all about? Charter opponents are trying to make hay with allegations that some charter schools are “cream-skimming,” either by discouraging certain kids from enrolling...

Managing in a fishbowl

Mike and Nina Rees take on the federal charter-school bill that passed in the House last week, what traditional public schools can learn from charters, and the pros and cons of KIPP’s character-education model. Amber wades into teacher-evaluation research.

Amber's Research Minute

Evaluating Teachers with Classroom Observations: Lessons Learned in Four Districts by Grover J. Whitehurst, Matthew M. Chingos, and Katharine M. Lindquist, (Washington, D.C.: Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings, May 2014).

Expanding the Education Universe: An explanation of course choice by Michael Brickman

Expanding the Education Universe: An explanation of course choice by Michael Brickman

The Fordham Institute's National Policy Director, Michael Brickman explains the benefits of course choice and the implications for students.

After twenty years of expanding school-choice options, state leaders, educators, and families have a new tool: course choice, a strategy for students to learn from unconventional providers that might range from top-tier universities or innovative community colleges to local employers, labs, or hospitals.

In Expanding the Education Universe: A Fifty-State Strategy for Course Choice, Fordham’s Michael Brickman outlines policy questions and options to weigh when designing course-choice programs, including issues of student eligibility, course providers, funding, quality control, and accountability.

Spotlight: Course Choice in Louisiana

Louisiana is not the only state with a course-choice program (others include Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin), but it is the farthest along in making such options widely accessible—and the way it has handled any challenges posed by these programs make it an ideal exemplar. Read about barriers that State Superintendent John White and other leaders have had to overcome in designing and implementing course choice. 

Last week, the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools (OAPCS) announced that Darlene Chambers would take the helm of the organization as its new president and chief executive officer. Darlene takes over for Bill Sims, whose steady leadership guided the group for its first seven years. Leadership changes at any organization present challenges and opportunities, but in this case those are one and the same: the need to improve the quality of Ohio’s charter-school sector.

At the beginning of this year, we stated the obvious: that Ohio’s charter sector has too many low performers. We went on to suggest that it’s incumbent upon charter supporters to lead the effort to improve quality. Darlene’s background uniquely positions her to steer a course toward quality. As the executive director of a leading charter sponsor, the Ohio Council of Community Schools, Darlene understands more than most the difficult and important decisions that sponsors face when deciding whether to renew a charter contract or to close a school. She also has learned firsthand (as has Fordham) that nonrenewal or closure is hard but is sometimes the right decision for kids.

In addition to her role at OCCS, Chambers is also the outgoing president of the Ohio Association of Charter School Authorizers. This collection of Buckeye sponsors has been an advocate for higher-quality charter authorizing. Given the importance placed on the role of effective authorizing at the state and national level, this gives Darlene a unique...

I am not a fan of sports, despite the best efforts of my father, my friends, and my work colleagues; nor am I a watcher of House of Cards, despite a love of deep and twisty TV generally; nor have I gotten into the reality TV show genre, despite watching hours of commercials for them all over the years.

But, thanks to my work here at the Fordham Institute, I have come upon a real life story that has elements of all these genres and just in time for March Madness it has come down to the wire.

Note: I am indebted to journalists Mark Reiter and Ignazio Messina of the Toledo Blade for diligently following this story and allowing me to vicariously “ride along”.

Horizon Science Academy in Toledo is a K-8 charter school in the downtown area that has been in business since 2011. It has 270 students enrolled this school year and received a D for performance index and an A for overall value-add last year (check out their full report card here). In late 2013, the operators were looking to expand and found a ready-built new home – the building currently occupied by the Toledo area YMCA (gym, services, offices). A deal was struck between the two parties, contracts signed, and then attention turned toward obtaining the required special use permit to allow a school to operate in the building.

The first part of that process required approval from the Toledo Plan Commission,...

Encouraging integrated schools in the District of Columbia?

Encouraging integrated schools in the District of Columbia?

A discussion on the merits and pitfalls of "controlled choice"
"Parents would express preferences among a cluster of schools, and an algorithm would make matches by balancing personal preferences with the shared civic goal of maximizing socioeconomic integration."
That's how controlled-choice zones would work in Washington, D.C., as suggested by Sam Chaltain, Richard Kahlenberg, and Michael Petrilli in a recent Washington Post op-ed. Why try such a policy in our nation's capital? Many believe in the value of integrated schools and communities as tools for teaching tolerance, encouraging critical thinking, and strengthening our democracy. Some research shows that children of different socioeconomic backgrounds benefit from learning together.
But others argue that "controlled choice" isn't all that different from the "forced busing" of yesteryear, in that it restricts families' education options and imposes a top-down, government-run social-engineering scheme on school assignment policies. Some worry that it might also impede the economic revitalization of the city.
Join the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and The Century Foundation for a lively debate on the merits and pitfalls of controlled choice.