Governance

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One of the most hotly debated issues in American education today revolves around low-performing schools and districts: how to define “low-performing,” what to do about them, and who gets to decide. That’s at the heart of the deliberations—and arguments—over the No Child Left Behind reauthorization now moving through Congress.

But there’s another species of “failing” schools and districts that doesn’t attract the same controversy, even though it should: institutions that are financially insolvent, or headed toward that status. For example, as of the 2014–15 school year, the School District of Philadelphia had massive deficits—to the tune of $320 million. In Michigan, nearly 7 percent of all traditional school districts and charter school districts (57 of 843) were operating at a deficit at the end of the 2013–14 fiscal year. Over 25 percent of New Mexico districts (23 of 89) required emergency state aid in 2013–14. And there are similar problems in Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, and elsewhere.

Districts go insolvent primarily because there are insufficient counter-pressures on their leaders to stay fiscally solvent. Existing leaders are often rewarded—through elections, appointments, or re-appointments—when they make promises that...

Report by Dara Zeehandelaar, Victoria Sears, and Alyssa Schwenk

Foreword by Marguerite Roza, Michael J. Petrilli and Amber M. Northern

School districts across the land are contending with rising education costs and constrained revenues. Yet state policies for assisting school districts in financial trouble are uneven and complex. Interventions are often haphazard, occur arbitrarily, and routinely place politics over sound economics.

This brief presents a menu of sensible state responses when districts are insolvent or nearly so, arranged into a tiered sequence of interventions.

1. Collaborative Supports

District leaders receive low-impact assistance in managing their finances. Supports might include convening a budget review committee to identify unnecessary expenditures or assisting district finance officers to develop more accurate projections of future revenue. The goal is to work with leaders to recognize and rectify the causes of distress.

2. Financial Management

At this stage, experts are no longer advisory; they now oversee and manage a district’s financial matters. The goal is immediately to improve district finances so as to avert costly bailouts down the line, while building the capacity of district leaders to...

This book out of Harvard’s Public Educational Leadership Project (PELP) takes on one of the biggest challenges in managing school districts: the relationship between the central office and schools. In meeting needs that vary from building to building, do certain governance structures work better than others? For example, is it better to centralize and make all the decisions “downtown” or decentralize and give autonomy to schools?

Researchers analyzed five large urban districts in four states with varying approaches to their central office/schools relationships, all of which were selected based on improvements in student achievement. The districts shared other similarities, such as serving a wide range of schools and communities, and each enrolled more than sixty-thousand students (mostly of color). PELP’s methodology is best described as a case study approach that included combing through news sources and research reports and interviewing sixty-three district and school leaders.

Researchers reached a perplexing conclusion: Both styles can be successful if the central office and school coordinate their systems, strategies, and visions. Whether centralized, decentralized, or a blend of both, structure has no bearing on student performance. Instead, all that matters is that both parties openly communicate and readjust in order to figure out what...

John Kasich announced today that he’s running for president. The current governor of Ohio is the sixteenth Republican to join the crowded GOP primary, dwarfing the five-person field on the other side of the aisle. He’s also the twenty-first subject of our Eduwatch 2016 series chronicling presidential candidates’ stances on education issues.

Kasich entered politics in the late 1970s, when he was elected to the Ohio Senate. He moved on to the House of Representatives in 1983, representing the state’s Twelfth Congressional District until 2001. After taking a break from public life, he returned to take Ohio’s helm in 2011. During his time as the state’s sixty-ninth governor, Kasich has made education a priority, and his efforts have produced some positive results. Here’s a sampling of his views:

1. Common Core: “[The idea behind the standards was for] students in every state to be given the opportunity to compete with every other student….I want kids to jump higher….I’m going to make sure, at least in my state, that standards are high and local control is maintained….Now, some may call that Common Core. I don’t really know, but I’m telling you the way it is in my...

Ashley LiBetti Mitchel

As my colleague Sara Mead has written, we recently completed an analysis of state policies that affect charter/pre-K collaboration. In the analysis, we tried to figure out what a charter school would need to do and know in order to access state pre-K funds. In each state, we ask: Can charter schools offer state-funded pre-K? What’s the process for doing so? And how many charter schools serve preschoolers?

We used this information to rank states based on how hospitable an environment they offer for charter schools seeking to serve preschoolers. There are a few states where it is relatively easy for charters to offer pre-K. Washington, D.C. and Oklahoma top our list, with Wisconsin and Texas close behind. In these states, charter schools are one option in a network of diverse pre-K providers.

But in a majority of states, charter schools face numerous barriers to offering pre-K. Lots of these barriers are common across states, while others are unique to particular states. For example, low pre-K funding (less than 75 percent of what charters receive to serve K–12 students) creates a disincentive to offering pre-K in twenty-two states (and affects all potential providers, not just charter schools).

Nine states...

Jack McCarthy

Sara Mead and Ashley LiBetti Mitchel have done a great public service by providing a detailed study of how the early care and K–12 education policy landscape creates barriers to collaboration. It is good to see the Thomas B. Fordham Institute focusing its considerable knowledge and prestige on thinking about this opportunity.

From the perspective of someone who has been involved with charter schools since 1993, adding preschool and pre-kindergarten arrows to the education reform quiver has been a no-brainer since 2005. That was the year we launched AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter School in Washington, D.C.

The science behind early learning is clear and compelling. With growing numbers of children living in poverty-stricken and fragmented family households, the need is clear and compelling too.

Resources are already being invested. By some estimates, federal, state, and local governments (as well as corporations and individuals) spend $70 billion each year on myriad programs for early care and education. But as the study illustrates, the sector is highly fragmented, lacks quality, and is not connected to K–12 education in any meaningful way. Few states currently even offer full-day kindergarten.

What's most lacking is a clear, compelling goal, so let me suggest one: We must...

As everyone knows, the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education act is closer to the finish line now than at any time in the past eight years. (The law was due for an update in 2007—soon after NASA sent New Horizons to Pluto. That was a long time ago.)

For a great overview of where things stand, it’s hard to beat this excellent rundown by Alyson Klein of Politics K-12. But that won’t stop me from trotting out my ever-so-popular color-coded table. (Previous editions here, here, and here.)

The items that are “up in the air” are those that the Senate, House, and Obama administration will wrangle over in conference.

A few caveats: First, some of these provisions aren’t in current law—some were in the stimulus bill (like Race to the Top), some are in Arne Duncan’s conditional waivers (like teacher evaluations), and some are in one of the bills passed this month (like Title I portability). Second, the administration may very well try to add more items to the “up in the air” column in conference. For instance, it might try to save Race to...

You don’t have to be a diehard liberal to believe that it’s nuts to wait until kids—especially poor kids—are five years old to start their formal education. We know that many children arrive in kindergarten with major gaps in knowledge, vocabulary, and social skills. We know that first-rate preschools can make a big difference on the readiness front. And we know from the work of Richard Wenning and others that even those K–12 schools that are helping poor kids make significant progress aren’t fully catching them up to their more affluent peers. Six hours a day spread over thirteen years isn’t enough. Indeed, as our colleague Chester Finn calculated years ago, that amount of schooling adds up to just 9 percent of a person’s life on this planet by the age of eighteen. We need to start earlier and go faster.

But the challenge in pre-K, as in K–12 education, is one of quality at scale. As much as preschool education makes sense—as much as it should help kids get off to an even start, if not a “head start”—the actual experience has been consistently disappointing. Quality is uneven....

In a new study released today from Fordham, authors Sara Mead and Ashley LiBetti Mitchel examine thirty-six jurisdictions that have both charter schools and state-funded pre-K programs to determine where charters can provide state-funded pre-K. Among the findings:

  • Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia have both state-funded pre-K and charter laws. Of those, thirty-two have at least one charter school serving preschoolers.
  • Charter schools in all but four states face at least one significant barrier to offering state pre-K. Nine have statutory or policy barriers that preclude charter schools from offering state-funded pre-K; twenty-three other states technically permit charters to offer state-funded pre-K but have created practical barriers that significantly limit their ability to do so in practice.

The most common practical barriers include low funding levels, small pre-K programs, barriers to kindergarten enrollment, and local district monopolies on pre-K funds.

Download the report to see individual profiles of thirty-five states and the District of Columbia, as well as policy recommendations for federal and state policymakers and other critical stakeholders.

This research was made possible through the generous support of the Joyce Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), and our sister...

Yesterday, the Senate debated an amendment proposed by Mike Lee (R-UT) that would have required states to allow parents to opt-out of federally-mandated tests without penalizing their schools or districts. After Senate HELP committee chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) voiced his opposition, it failed 32 to 64. However, a similar amendment succeeded last week in the House, so is now included in the Student Success Act that was approved along party lines.

Senator Alexander’s floor speech on the Lee amendment, as printed in the Congressional Record, follows.

Mr. President, I thank the senator from Utah for his comments. We will be voting on the senator’s amendment this afternoon at 4 o’clock, and I want to just make a couple of comments about it. I have a little different view of what his proposal is. He talks about our being opposed to Washington’s heavy-handed approach. The way I understand his proposal, it is even more of a heavy-handed approach than the bill we are voting on today, and this is why.

His proposal is that Washington tells Utah or Oklahoma or Tennessee or Washington State what to do about whether parents may opt out of these federally required tests. Now, they are not...

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