Charters & Choice

Louisiana recently submitted a proposal to that state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education that calls for school choice and quality control in the state’s voucher program-- two words that have not been paired together enough here in Ohio. Specifically, the plan calls for a practical accountability system for the state’s voucher program. Louisiana’s K-12 scholarship program awards students who meet a residency and income requirement and who attend a low-performing school a scholarship to attend a private school of their choice. Currently approximately 5,000 students are using a public voucher in Louisiana.

The accountability plan, which would be the first of its kind in the nation, would introduce an accountability system based on a “sliding scale” (i.e. those schools enrolling more voucher students would be held to a higher level of accountability-- an idea Fordham proposed three years ago). Under the new system schools enrolling an average of greater than ten students per grade or forty or more students enrolled in tested grades will have their test scores reported. Schools will then be given points based on their performance, similar to the ones given to the public schools. Schools who receive low scores in the second year...

When first proposed, the Coverdell Education Savings Account(ESA) generated the familiar bombast characteristic of public policies that offset private-school tuition. The late Teddy Kennedy declared, in 1998, that the accounts would “privatize education” because families who saved for private or parochial K-12 schooling could enjoy tax-free gains on their investment. Then-President Clinton argued that only wealthy families would reap the rewards, which would cost the federal government billions, and later made good on his promise to veto the measure when it passed.

From its inception, the Coverdell ESA encouraged families to save.

George W. Bush resurrected the bill when he took the Oval Office, but the late Georgia Senator Paul Coverdell died before he could see his effort enacted into law. A decade has passed and the tax break is scheduled to expire on December 31, 2012. Lawmakers should extend the program’s benefits.

From its inception, the Coverdell ESA encouraged families to save. It never really was a voucher, as Kennedy had claimed. Unlike a tax-credit scholarship, contributions to the Coverdell aren’t tax-deductible. Rather, families enjoy tax-free earnings on their investments so long as they use the money to cover qualified education expenses (which can include religious schooling).

Additionally,...

It started as a fairly typical funding-equity lawsuit and ended with a startling Wall Street Journal headline, “Michigan City Outsources All of Its Schools.” The story, about the poor performing and all-but-bankrupt Highland Park school district, raises all kinds of questions about our nation’s public-education system. (More from my colleague Bianca Speranza about implications for Ohio of Highland Park's plan here.) Why is it failing our poor children (which I wrote about last week)? Can it be fixed? Can it be fixed by turning schools over to charter-management organizations (CMOs)? And if we do turn them over to CMOs, do they have to be nonprofits?

As many defenders of the status quo are beginning to realize, the road to improvement cannot be paved with the same defective asphalt.

According to a report by Jenny Ingles in the web-based Take Part, in early July the ACLU and eight students from the Highland Park school district, located just outside of Detroit, filed a class-action suit against the state because students in the district weren’t learning: On a college-ready state exam, 90 percent of the district's eleventh graders failed the reading portion, 97 percent failed the math...

America’s states, cities and schools are hurting big time financially. This is not news but the fact that the bad news keeps coming especially hurts.  For example, just released unemployment numbers show an increase to 8.3 percent as American households lost 195,000 jobs. The underemployment rate – which includes those who are underemployed or who are working part time rose to 15 percent. This economic pain has struck education hard, leaving public school budgets strapped for cash and making business-as-usual more and more difficult. Districts around the country are now starting to take some drastic, and sometimes controversial, actions.

Highland Parks Public Schools, a small district in Michigan that is one the state’s lowest-performers, is on the verge of financial collapse. It made news last week when officials there announced plans to outsource its schools to a private for-profit charter school operator. The district handed over operations to The Leona Group which runs 54 schools in five states; 22 of its schools are in Michigan. The Leona Group will now oversee decisions around the hiring of staff, school curriculum and instruction, as well as school facility and maintenance issues.

What led up to such drastic action and...

Louisiana’s capital newspaper reported this week that two private schools that originally opted into the state’s new voucher program have changed their minds after the teachers union threatened them with legal action. One school is a non-denominational Christian school in suburban Baton Rouge that enrolls about 800 students. It initially set aside four kindergarten seats for the voucher program. The other, a Roman Catholic school in a rural parish ninety miles outside Baton Rouge, set aside six seats in its 200-student school.

So far, not many schools have taken the union’s “offer” to drop out of the voucher program and avoid litigation.

Most Louisiana private schools that chose to participate in the voucher program share these characteristics. They are faith-based and they have reserved a handful of seats for voucher-bearing students. They’ll derive the overwhelming majority of their revenues from tuition-paying students.

The state’s Department of Education had to take this into account when it drafted regulations to hold “voucher schools” more accountable. It decided, sensibly, that private schools enrolling large numbers of publicly funded students will be held to greater public transparency and results-linked accountability than schools enrolling just a handful. If the state imposed the...

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The Louisiana teacher union can’t get the courts to stop private schools from enrolling voucher-bearing students this fall, so they’ve taken to threatening the schools with litigation.

The law firm representing the Louisiana Association of Educators and others in their legal challenge against the state’s new voucher program has sent letters to schools that opted to participate in the program that “it will have no alternative other than to institute litigation” against them unless they opt out.

Two weeks ago, a district judge in Louisiana denied the union’s request for an injunction to block funding to the program, and an appellate court this week threw out the union’s request to overturn that decision. So now the plaintiffs have turned to bullying the schools.

A letter sent by attorney Brian Blackwell to one school asked for a promise not to accept any voucher funds. The alternative, Blackwell said, might be litigation. “We hope that you agree with us that proceeding with a program that is blatantly unconstitutional does not benefit students, parents, public schools or non-public schools,” he wrote.

The tactic worked. The school later wrote to state Superintendent John White that it was pulling out of the program. So...

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Louisiana broke new ground this week with a sensible plan for holding “voucher schools” accountable. State Superintendent John White will put into practice a “sliding scale” of accountability (an idea we first floated three years ago): Private schools enrolling large numbers of publicly funded students will be held to greater public transparency and results-linked accountability than schools enrolling just a handful. Specifically, private schools that enroll an average of ten voucher students per grade or more than forty in grades that are tested will be assessed points under a scoring system similar to one administered to public schools. A lower score could keep a school from enrolling students in the program, and it could, over time, trigger a quality review by the state Department of Education. Transparency around student-achievement results can be found in the voucher programs of other states (including Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio), but only Louisiana will have the authority to banish from the program schools that show consistently poor performance. This is a common-sense policy that can make vouchers more politically sustainable—and work better for kids, to boot.

A version of this analysis appeared on the Choice Words blog.

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