Charters & Choice

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...

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...

The National Conference of State Legislatures has put together a nice primer on accountability for private school choice programs. Twenty-three states, one Colorado school 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. 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 begins to flow, the gamut of accountability measures—and the consequences of failing to meet them—broadens. Programs can differ by testing requirements for students (same-state assessments as their public school peers or tests of their 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 these accountability measures function in Louisiana, Indiana, and Wisconsin. While Ohio is not spotlighted, it could have been. Ohio law has some meaningful accountability built into its private...

Discussion of charter schools is everywhere in the Ohio news. Everyone has an angle, including a few unexpected ones:

NOTE: Below is the text of a press release issued by Fordham today.

The Ohio Department of Education has awarded the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation’s sponsorship operation a rating of “Exemplary,” the state’s highest mark, for our work sponsoring charter schools.

On a zero-to-100 scale, our scores are as follows:

  • Quality Practices: 97.4
  • Student Academic Outcomes: 100
  • Compliance: 100
  • Overall Score: 99.1

“This recognition would not be possible without the hard work of the schools with whom we work,” said Kathryn Mullen Upton, Vice President for Sponsorship and Dayton Initiatives “We look forward to continuing to improve our efforts to positively impact outcomes for the children in the schools that we serve.”

The Department evaluates sponsors in three critical areas: quality practices, student academic outcomes, and compliance. Quality practices includes all areas of a sponsor’s day-to-day work: review of proposed school applications, contracts, monitoring and oversight, renewal, school closure, technical assistance, and agency commitment. Student academic outcomes are evaluated based on learning gains made by students at different levels of proficiency. Compliance focuses on the extent to which a sponsor monitors the health and...

Boarding schools are often associated with the rich and the privileged; as such, they are seen as an out-of-reach option for low-income families searching for high-quality education. But in a world of ever-increasing school choice, must boarding schools remain out-of-reach? Do tuition-free boarding schools that serve primarily academically struggling, low-income children exist?

The answer is yes, they do—but they’re extremely rare. A 2003 study from the University of Chicago interviewed policy experts, educators, child welfare and youth development professionals, and parents of children who attend boarding schools designed for students with social and economic disadvantages. The study concludes that “urban or community boarding schools represent a promising idea that deserves serious consideration.” Yet the authors are careful to point out that many people harbor concerns “about the meaning of out-of-home settings used primarily by low-income or minority children.” They cite America’s troubling legacy of using boarding schools for shameful reasons can lead to understandable suspicions about residential education models for low-income, high-need youth.

However, there are examples of places where the residential education model is already in place and working—and where families are thrilled with the results. In 2009, New York Times Magazine looked at the...

Thank you Chairman Cupp, Ranking Member Phillips and members of the House Finance Subcommittee on Primary and Secondary Education for giving me the opportunity to present testimony on House Bill 64. My name is Chad Aldis, and I am the Vice President for Ohio Policy and Advocacy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

In general, we are supportive of most of Governor Kasich’s proposed education changes. Some of the provisions that we believe are critically important include:

  • Taking tangible steps to reduce the amount of standardized/state testing without weakening our state accountability system
  • Providing regulatory relief to schools
  • Moving toward reducing the impact of caps and guarantees in the state funding formula, as they distort the needs of districts and build funding inefficiencies into the system
  • Opening the door (and providing funding) for schools to experiment with competency-based/mastery learning
  • Strengthening the EdChoice voucher program
  • Improving Ohio’s charter school sector

To expound a little bit on the charter reforms: Fordham has spent a significant amount of time over the past year looking at Ohio’s charter school sector and has sponsored national experts to study the state’s charter schools. With that research in mind, we believe that some of the provisions proposed...

A torrent of complaints has been levelled against testing in recent months. Some of the criticism is associated with the PARCC exams, Ohio’s new English and math assessments for grades 3–8 and high school. The grumbling over testing isn’t a brand new phenomenon. In fact, it’s worth noting that in 2004, Ohioans were grousing about the OGTs! In the face of the latest iteration of the testing backlash, we should remember why standardized tests are essential. The key reasons, as I see them, are objectivity, comparability, and accountability.

Reason 1: Objectivity

At their core, standardized exams are designed to be objective measures. They assess students based on a similar set of questions, are given under nearly identical testing conditions, and are graded by a machine or blind reviewer. They are intended to provide an accurate, unfiltered measure of what a student knows.

Now, some have argued that teachers’ grades are sufficient. But the reality is that teacher grading practices can be wildly uneven across schools—and even within them. For instance, one math teacher might be an extraordinarily lenient grader, while another might be brutally hard: Getting an A means something very different. Teacher grading can be subjective...

  1. While we rarely say “no thanks” to a media hit here at Fordham, sometimes we do worry about getting swept into stories by association with the topic. To wit: Fordham is namechecked and our two commissioned reports on charter school performance from December are referenced in this Dispatch piece first published Tuesday morning. It is about the Center for Education Reform’s new study of laws and policies in the 42 states (and the District of Columbia) that allow charter schools. Now Ohio’s grade of “C” stinks, no question, but the original version of this piece erroneously gave Ohio’s rank as 28 out of 43. The entire story – including Fordham’s namecheck – proceeded from this rank. Only, it’s wrong. Ohio’s rank was actually 14 out of 43. Still a “C”, still stinky, but an entirely different conversation should have arisen out of a top-15 finish, especially in regard to what is currently happening in every part of state government in Ohio to fix some long-standing problems. The same likely cannot be said of many other states. (Columbus Dispatch, 3/17/15)
     
  2. Speaking of that work to reform Ohio’s charter school law – it continues apace. HB 2 – the standalone
  3. ...

Editor’s note: This is the eighth in a series of personal reflections on the current state of education reform and contemporary conservatism by Andy Smarick, a Bernard Lee Schwartz senior policy fellow with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. The previous posts in this series can be seen hereherehereherehere, here, and here.

Many reformers work to ensure that every child has access to great schools. Similar universal aspirations have inspired countless others—the recognition of unalienable rights, the elimination of poverty, the fair distribution of resources.

Indeed, the question of how to define and realize “justice” has consumed philosophers for centuries. A key lesson from this Everest of scholarship is that all approaches require tradeoffs.

Unfortunately, our field doesn’t talk much about tradeoffs, and we certainly don’t talk about philosophy. You’ll not find in your conference program, “Plato, Aquinas, and Nietzsche: The Metaphysics of Annual Testing.”

But this is not to say that reform is philosophy-free. Conservatives led this movement twenty-five years ago; their skepticism of government monopolies and public sector unions and commitment to empowering parents and diversifying options owed much to Smith, Mill, and Friedman. 

Today, progressives dominate education reform, and progressivism is stirred...

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