Charters & Choice

In case you were hanging out beneath some stone-like material yesterday, you missed the fact that Ohio Senator Peggy Lehner (R-Kettering) introduced Senate Bill 148 yesterday (companion House version HB156 was also introduced). These bills represent the latest work toward charter school reform in Ohio. So far, the Governor, the House, and the State Auditor have all weighed in with significant reform plans to improve accountability, oversight, and – most importantly – quality of charter schools and sponsors.

Not to toot our own horn, but these efforts hit high-gear following publication of two Fordham-sponsored reports back in December. In case you were hanging out beneath said rock-like material back then as well (seriously, what are you up to?), you can check out those reports and more here.

Sen. Lehner’s bill is the culmination of many weeks of workgroup sessions with high-level stakeholders in the state and debate over active legislation in the House.

As with previous important stops along the “road to redemption” as we like to call it, media attention on these bills was quick and widespread. So, here’s a special edition of Gadfly Bites, biting into the various iterations of media coverage:

1.       Fordham participated in Sen....

A new report by a Harlem-based parent advocacy group calls on New York City charter schools to reduce their long waiting lists by “backfilling,” or admitting new students whenever current ones leave. The report from Democracy Builders estimates that there are 2,500 empty seats in New York City charter schools this year as a result of students leaving and not being replaced the following year.

It’s a deeply divisive issue within the charter sector. When transient students (those most likely to be low-performing) leave charter schools and are not replaced, it potentially makes some charters look good on paper through attrition and simple math: Strugglers leave, high performers stay, and the ratio of proficient students rises, creating an illusion of excellence that is not fully deserved. Charters should not be rewarded, the backfillers argue, merely for culling their rolls of the hardest to teach or taking advantage of natural attrition patterns.

Fair enough, although there’s a distasteful, internecine-warfare quality to all of this: Charters that backfill resent the praise and glory heaped upon those who do not, and seek to cut them down to size. Traditional schools hate...

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 that non-academic considerations (bus transportation, sports, afterschool care) are often bigger factors than academic quality when parents choose schools. It also suggested strongly that it was possible for other players in the system (e.g., city officials, charter authorizers, the SEA) to assert the primacy of academic quality by a number of means (e.g., type and style of information available to parents, a central application system). A new report from ERA-New Orleans follows up 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 aggressively. 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) would be less pressing.

These...

My U.S. News column this week is sure to raise hackles. But that’s only because anytime you put the words “Eva” and “Moskowitz” adjacent to each other, you’re sure to upset either fans or haters of the polarizing founder of New York’s Success Academies. 

Much has been written by me and others at Fordham about the stellar results achieved by Moskowitz’s Success Academy charter schools and the controversial tactics used to achieve them. This isn’t an attempt to re-litigate any of those arguments. How Moskowitz runs her schools is of enormous importance to education policy advocates and activists, but most parents simply don’t care. Indeed, I’m tempted to suggest the secret of Moskowitz’s success is that she may have a better grasp of what parents want than just about anyone in education today. From the piece:

For inner-city moms and dads who have been disappointed by unsafe schools, chronic failure, and limited educational opportunities, questions about schools come down to three: Is my child safe? Is my child behaving? Is my child learning? Moskowitz can answer affirmatively—and accurately--for all three.

Having taught in a troubled South Bronx elementary...

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...

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....

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...

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.  ...

In his proposed budget , Governor John Kasich calls for the creation of a competency-based education pilot program. Competency-based education is premised on the idea that students only move on to more complex concepts and skills after they master simpler ones. While that sounds somewhat negative at first blush, it also means that mastering current content quickly leads to advancing sooner than the standard march from grade to grade. Kasich’s proposal would provide grants to ten districts or schools that were selected through an application process created by the Ohio Department of Education to pilot the program.

The competency-based model goes by different names in different places. In Ohio, there are schools that already utilize it but call it something different: mastery grading. (Be sure to check out how schools like Metro Early College School and MC²STEM high school, as well as districts like Pickerington, make it work.) Mastery grading assesses students based on whether or not they’ve mastered specific skills and concepts. Instead of an overall grade that takes homework completion, daily assignments, class participation, and test grades that cover multiple standards into account to formulate an average, mastery grading breaks down a student’s...

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...

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