Charters & Choice

The tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina provided a much-needed occasion to reflect on the progress of the city’s schools since the floodwaters receded. One of the most important questions is whether New Orleans can stand as a national model for those seeking to transform the education—and therefore the life outcomes—of low-income children of color. I’m not completely sold yet.

In the wake of the storm, New Orleans’s education system was rebuilt virtually from scratch. More than one hundred low-performing schools were placed under the jurisdiction of Louisiana’s Recovery School District (RSD), which was created in 2003 to take over and reverse the fortunes of chronically disappointing public schools throughout the state. At a stroke, the city’s public school system was functionally transformed; today it’s a virtually all-charter “replacement district.” More than 90 percent of New Orleans public school students attend a charter school, with the RSD overseeing 70 percent of the city’s overall K–12 student population.

When reform-friendly commenters and cheerleading journalists write about the NOLA transformation, it’s become de rigueur to offer a standard qualifier--words to the effect of, “We still have a long way to go, but…” In this formulation, poor...

In the CRPE debate between Paul Hill and Robin Lake on the issue of charter back-fill, Paul's right. Robin, as always, makes excellent points and raises legitimate concerns. But in the grand trade-off they're debating—whether "high-output" charters should be able to be choosy about which kids they retain and what they do with vacancies that arise during the year—Paul makes the more persuasive argument, at least when judged by what's good for the kids who stand to benefit most from these schools. If we keep their interests squarely in front of us, we must wind up agreeing with Paul: "When drawing from a highly at-risk population, it is not easy to identify kids who will do the work a priori. It’s one thing for a student and family to promise daily attendance and completion of all assignments, but quite another to deliver. A high-output school has to let those kids who won’t fulfill their obligations go elsewhere, unless it is willing to abandon requirements that it considers essential to full college preparation. It should be free to fill seats that become vacant with kids who have a good chance of succeeding in the school, but shouldn’t be forced to fill vacancies."...

  • As traditionalist gift givers are no doubt aware, the tenth anniversary metal is tin. Last week, with a slew of ten-year retrospectives and events commemorating the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe, a longtime reform critic traded in her responsible commentator’s hat for one of those nifty ones made from tin foil. Business journalist Andrea Gabor, who has spent years grinding an axe against school choice and high standards, attempted to bury it in the back of the New York Times with a breathless op-ed decrying the “myth” of the post-hurricane New Orleans schools revival. The Seventy Four quickly published a rebuttal of the simple factual inaccuracies in Gabor’s piece, and reform-friendly superintendent John White wrote a paean to the city’s charter district and the educators who work there. But the best response has come from liberal pundit Jonathan Chait, who defended high-achieving charters as “one of the most impressive triumphs of American social policy.” New Orleans still hasn’t completely turned around a school system that was irrevocably broken even before the storm. But after a decade of progress, it’s attracted allies from across the spectrum, and that’s something to celebrate.
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Education policy is rarely a top issue in presidential campaigns. In the main, that's fine; most of the action takes place at the state and local levels. Still, last week's education policy summit hosted in New Hampshire by the education news website the Seventy Four and the American Federation for Children gave six of the seventy GOP presidential contenders the chance to burnish their K–12 credentials. (A second summit featuring Democratic candidates is slated for October in Iowa.)

To help the candidates hone their stump speeches, those of us at the Fordham Institute spent some time recently brainstorming campaign themes we'd like to see candidates from either party embrace. Here's what we came up with:

Education reform is working. It's by no means unanimous or uncontroversial, but Americans are generally supportive of the education reform agenda, broadly defined. An Education Next poll released last week shows solid (if softening) support for reform staples like charter schools, testing and accountability, merit pay for teachers, and tax credits to fund scholarships for low-income children. Voters even like higher standards—as long as you don't use the words "Common Core." And while...

On Wednesday, the American Federation for Children sponsored and cohosted with the Seventy Four a first-of-its-kind summit at which six Republican presidential candidates talked about American education. They discussed hot-button K–12 education issues—Common Core, teachers’ unions, school choice—but struggled to name the exact role a president should play in that arena.

“A president can do many things; it doesn’t mean it should,” former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina said.

Most candidates questioned the purpose of the Department of Education and favored state control of schools. Fiorina said the amount of money flowing through Washington does not correlate with student improvements.

“The federal government is the last place in the world I want holding states and local school districts accountable,” said Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. But when pressed by Seventy Four editor-in-chief and summit host Campbell Brown, candidates agreed that presidential influence is the most useful tool for a president to move the needle on education.

“The bully pulpit needs to be used,” former Florida Governor Jeb Bush said. “This is crisis. Hundreds of thousands of kids can’t get jobs because of the skills gap….This has got to be the highest priority for the next president of...

Eight years ago, I offered my first public commentary about New Orleans’s post-Katrina reform strategy. In the spirit of personal accountability, I’m putting those words to the test, and I’ve asked six very smart, tough graders to check my work.

By way of background, in 2006 and 2007, I had reached maximum frustration with urban districts for failing millions of kids over decades. I was trying to figure out how to preserve the principles of public education while replacing—not merely changing—the district. My initial argument was published in late 2007 as an article in Education Next called “Wave of the Future.”

When I started drafting that piece, only a fraction of NOLA kids were in independent charters; the RSD-fueled reform approach was just getting started. But it looked like that great city had the potential to develop a new system of schools along the lines I was advocating—namely replacing the single government provider model with an array of autonomous and accountable chartered schools.

Though the article was about the charters-as-the-system approach, it included a very short call-out box on NOLA. I argued the city needed to focus on two things if it wanted to create this truly different system of...


As we approach the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans’s groundbreaking and highly successful effort to replace its traditional-district-based system with a system of charters and choice deserves some attention.

But let’s begin by focusing on recent developments mostly outside of NOLA. It’s critical to appreciate that this shift (from a single government operator to an array of nonprofit operators) is happening in many other locations—and it’s being done well.

This very good July Politico article describes D.C.’s thriving charter sector. It’s educating nearly half of the city’s kids, serving a more disadvantaged population than the district, producing better academic results, and offering a diverse range of schools. On this last point, a fantastic new study by Michael McShane and Jenn Hatfield shows that chartering is producing a wide variety of schools in city after city (contra claims that charters are cookie-cutter).

A number of cities are showing that the charter sector is best able to reliably create and grow high-performing schools. NewSchools Venture Fund just released a short report on its Boston Charter School Replication Fund. It invested $12 million and helped double the size...

There are two basic arguments for charter schools’ existence, note Michael McShane and Jenn Hatfield: First, by taking advantage of flexibility not afforded traditional public schools, they can raise student achievement. Second, they can use that freedom and deregulation to create a more diverse set of schools than might otherwise come into being. There is an increasingly robust body of evidence on charter schools’ academic performance. Far less is known about the second aspect. So how diverse is the nation’s charter sector?

The short answer is: more diverse than you might expect, but less than we might hope. McShane and Hatfield ran the numbers on 1,151 schools, which combine to educate nearly half a million students in seventeen different cities. Based on each school’s description of its own mission or model, they were divided into “general” or “specialized” schools. Within the latter category, schools were further divided in thirteen sub-types, including “no-excuses,” STEM schools, progressive, single-sex, etc. There’s an even split between generalized and specialized schools, with the most common types being no-excuses and progressive.

The pair also found significant variation between cities. They contend that these distinctions are driven by demographics, the age and market share of each...

In early May, a coalition of stakeholders from business, philanthropy, and education organizations in Cincinnati announced a bold new public-private partnership called Accelerate Great Schools (AGS). The nonprofit organization is modeled after a similar program in Indianapolis known as the Mind Trust. In Indy, the Mind Trust is accomplishing some pretty remarkable things, including attracting established reform organizations and charter operators with proven records, and funding fellowships for talented people with ideas that have the potential to transform education. But what makes Cincinnati the right place to implement such a daring venture, and what exactly is AGS trying to accomplish?

Part of the reason why Accelerate Great Schools is coming together in Cincinnati—and has a chance to be successful—is because education in the Queen City has a lot going for it already. The school district, Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS), has implemented community learning centers (CLCs). CLCs are schools that offer more than academics. They also provide health services such as eye centers, dental clinics, and mental health counseling; after-school programs and tutoring; parent and family engagement programs; early career and college access services; mentoring; and arts and recreational programming for students, families, and the...

Reporter Richard Whitmire recently discovered the Building Excellent Schools (BES) fellowship program while interviewing a number of its graduates, leaders of high-performing charter schools across the country. The program allows promising charter school leaders to learn from the best practitioners in the field, to forge vital connections, and to see firsthand the importance of a strong leadership team. Over the years, BES has imparted these skills to many educators who have gone forth to lead new charter schools with the zeal of pioneers.

We here at Fordham have seen firsthand what Whitmire describes, because Columbus, Ohio is home to BES Fellow Andrew Boy—founder and chief executive officer at the United Schools Network (USN). Since Andy completed his BES fellowship and started his first school in a tiny church in 2008, he and his team have created a network of four schools successfully serving approximately 560 students in low-income neighborhoods in Columbus.

According to USN’s 2014 Annual Report, 89 percent of seventh graders at USN’s Dana Avenue campus scored proficient or higher on the reading portion of the Ohio Achievement Assessment. That’s five percentage points higher than all Ohio public school students. Students in USN’s Main...