Charters & Choice

The title of this slim, engaging book of essays tees up a question about which there is very little disagreement. Of course character matters. “Character skills matter at least as much as cognitive skills,” writes Nobel laureate James Heckman in the lead essay, summarizing the literature. “If anything, character matters more.” Since cognitive and non-cognitive skills can be shaped and changed, particularly in early childhood, he writes, “this suggests new and productive avenues for public policy.” It may indeed. But the journey from good idea to good policy is a minefield for both parties, as Third Way policy analyst Lanae Erickson Hatalsky notes in her essay. If Democrats talk about character, “it runs the risk of sounding like apostasy, blaming poor children for their own situation in life and chiding them to simply have more grit and pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” (Likewise, the Left dares not invoke the miasma of family structure.) Character talk may feel more at home in Republican talking points, but it carries the risk of foot-in-mouth disease, “setting the stage for politicians to inadvertently say something that sounds patronizing to the poor, demeaning to single women, or offensive to African Americans (or all three).”...

Bobby Jindal recently announced that he’s running for president. The two-term governor of Louisiana is one of fourteen hopefuls in the increasingly crowded race for the GOP primary. He’s also the subject of the eighteenth installment of the Eduwatch 2016 series chronicling presidential candidates’ stances on education issues.

A lifelong Louisianian, Jindal has been involved in politics since the mid-nineties, when he worked for Governor Murphy Foster. He went on to represent the Bayou State’s First Congressional District for two terms in the House of Representatives, after which he returned to state politics to take Louisiana’s helm. In his long career, he’s had a lot to say about education. Here’s a sampling:

1. Common Core: “We want out of Common Core....We won't let the federal government take over Louisiana's education standards. We're very alarmed about choice and local control of curriculum being taken away from our parents and educators....Common Core's become a one-size-fits-all model that simply doesn't make sense for our state.” June 2014.

2. High Standards: “High standards for our students? Count me in. My dad was not happy with straight As. If my brother or I got a 95 percent, he wanted to know what happened on...

John Dickinson, probably our nation’s most underappreciated founder, argued at the Constitutional Convention, “Experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us.”

This can be particularly helpful when thinking about education policy. It gets us away from reasoning primarily through abstractions. Theories can sparkle on the page, but—like exquisite battle plans that perish at first enemy contact—the real world lacks the good manners to blithely approve celebrated ideas.

Education is also prone to fads cooked up by the best and brightest of the moment. The current generation always seems to fancy itself the wisest, the most courageous, the long-awaited possessor of The Answer. But schools have been around forever. There are mountains of accumulated wisdom to study if we’re willing to look up from our Twitter feeds.

A terrific new article by two of our field’s éminences grises shows what experience has to offer above and beyond ideas, ideology, and innovation. In “A Progress Report on Charter Schools,” Checker Finn and Bruno Manno reflect on lessons learned since the publication of their 2000 book Charter Schools in Action.

Finn and...

June marked the end of my first year as superintendent of Partnership Schools, a nonprofit school management organization that (thanks to an historic agreement with the Archdiocese of New York) was granted broad authority to manage and operate six K–8 urban Catholic schools. Our work is one part of a nationwide effort to help save urban Catholic education. It’s a mission that has brought together an amazing group of Catholic educators and philanthropists with a common commitment: to not let this essential element of American education disappear from the communities our schools serve.

The urgency of this work is grounded in the seriousness of the problems our schools face. The Partnership Schools—three in the South Bronx and three in Harlem—have been struggling. Like so many urban Catholic schools subsisting on tuition payments or private philanthropy, our teachers and leaders have been forced to operate on austerity budgets. Salaries have been low. Textbooks have been sorely outdated. Professional development has been thin, and our principals have faced the almost impossible job of juggling tasks ranging from operations to fundraising to parent outreach to managing union grievances—all virtually on their own. They had scant time to serve teachers as instructional leaders and...

Last week, Chris Christie announced his candidacy for president. The current governor of New Jersey in one of fourteen Republicans running for the White House—a group that vastly outnumbers the five Democrats in the race. He’s also the subject of the seventeenth installment of the Eduwatch 2016 series chronicling presidential candidates’ stances on education issues.

Christie has been at New Jersey’s helm since 2010. A lawyer by trade, he’s been a lobbyist, practiced law in private firms, and served as the U.S. attorney for the District of New Jersey from 2002 to 2008. In his five years leading the Garden State, he’s made a number of changes to the state’s education system, including expanding charter schools and reforming teacher tenure and evaluation. Here are some of his recent stances on education:

1. Common Core: “It's now been five years since Common Core was adopted, and the truth is that it's simply not working....It has brought only confusion and frustration to our parents and has brought distance between our teachers and the communities where they work....Instead of solving problems in our classrooms, it is creating new ones.” May 2015.

2. School choice: “Students in struggling districts should have...

Perhaps you’ve been on vacation or caught up in the historic events of recent weeks, but over the past ten days, we at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute hosted our second annual Wonkathon. Last year’s was about charter school quality; this year’s focused on how to implement the brand-new (and groundbreaking) Nevada education savings account program. (Congratulations to Seth Rau of Nevada Succeeds, the winner of the Wonkathon, who both seized his home field advantage and proved that when it comes to using similes, you’d better go big or go home.)

As Jason Bedrick of the Cato Institute rightly concluded, our blogfest demonstrated remarkable consensus, at least among the scholars, policy analysts, and practitioners who participated. Nobody wants Nevada to micromanage the program; everyone understands—and wants regulators to address—the risk of financial malfeasance. Most agreed that making educational providers assess their results with a nationally norm-referenced test was a reasonable approach.

Yet lurking behind the apparent consensus is an unspoken question: What’s this reform trying to accomplish? The law itself says it wants to increase student achievement and parental satisfaction. But go back and read the fourteen posts and you’ll find that the ones most enthusiastic...

  • Defined benefit pension packages: Love ‘em if they’re sending you a check each month, hate ‘em if you have to think too hard about their consequences. That’s probably the reason we just don’t give them much consideration (well, part of the reason; they’re also slightly less gripping than you may have been led to believe). Good thing the National Council on Teacher Quality put together an informative, concise fact sheet on the realities of our teacher retirement processes. The short version isn’t pretty—backloaded plans with lengthy vesting periods typically penalize teachers who leave the profession early, enter it late, or move to a different state mid-profession. Their escalating costs are also threatening to overwhelm cash-strapped districts. Painful though it may be, we may have to start dedicating more thought to the subject.
  • The Foundation for Excellence in Education has released a fantastic tool that accomplishes two purposes: explaining what we actually mean when we talk about student “proficiency” and clarifying which jurisdictions actually measure anything close to it. Users can see how students are performing in their states, and whether those states’ reporting practices give a picture that resembles reality—or just an illusion.
  • It wasn't
  • ...

In the midst of debates about whether school is the best place to combat the effects of poverty, several educational institutions have taken it upon themselves to integrate non-academic poverty-relief supports into their academic programs. According to a new report from the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, these schools offer unique on-the-ground efforts to support high-need students above and beyond the traditional academic model. They include KIPP, SEED schools, the Harlem Children's Zone, and community-based schools like those found in Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS).

Each organization offers its own take on anti-poverty programming. KIPP focuses on extended school days and longer school years, character education, and initiatives like KIPP Through College, which includes step-by-step assistance in the college admission process as well as after-school tutoring and counseling. These are services that other high-poverty schools struggle to offer. KIPP is also extending its services in specific locations; KIPP Houston, for instance, features a school-based health clinic called KIPP Care. The SEED schools, meanwhile, take efforts even further with a one-of-a-kind public boarding school model: Those enrolled live on campus five days a week, then head home for the weekend. Students, many of whom...

A new report by researchers at the University of Arkansas examines non-public revenue in public charters and traditional public schools (TPS). This is the same group of researchers that the Thomas B. Fordham Institute commissioned to do our first charter-district finance study—and thankfully, they’re at it again, dispelling the myth that charters get all the philanthropic dollars they need to make up the existing funding deficit. Not so.

Analysts engage in an in-depth examination of non-public funds for Fiscal Year 2011 in public charter and TPS sectors in the fifteen states where they possess sufficient data (which means this isn’t a representative sample). Non-public funds include revenues from areas such as food service (that yummy cafeteria food), investment revenue, program revenue, rental revenue, philanthropic funds, and others.

Key findings: TPS received $6.4 billion and charters $379 million of non-public revenue in 2011. For TPS, this amounts to an average of $353 per pupil; for charters, an average of $579 per pupil. Yet these numbers vary by state. For instance, in Michigan charters receive 50 percent less in per-pupil revenue from non-public sources than do the TPS. The types of non-public revenue coming in also change by sector. In TPS,...

Over the past two weeks, we received fourteen responses to Fordham’s second annual Wonkathon prompt:

As Nevada implements its groundbreaking education savings account program, what must it get right in order to provide positive outcomes for kids and taxpayers? Should state authorities stay out of the way? Or are there certain areas that demand oversight and regulation?

This year’s posts offered a wide-range of oversight models from some of the wonkiest wonks in education reform. But there can only be one Wisest Wonk.

Without further ado, the winner of Fordham’s 2015 Wonkathon is Seth Rau, whose “Nevada should regulate ESAs like brothels” came in with 39 percent of the vote.

Tracey Weinstein’s “Does Nevada’s new ESA law hold promise for kids?” came in second with 17 percent.

And Rabbi A.D. Motzen’s “Why almost universal is not good enough” came in third with 15 percent.

Thanks to all the participants for another great Wonkathon, and congratulations to this year’s Wisest Wonk, Seth Rau! You can re-read the individual responses below or get the short and sweet version from Jason Bedrick’s recap.

 “Nevada needs...

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