The Seventy Four had a simple goal: to make the 2016 presidential election season one in which candidates could pause in their frenzy of backstabbing and baby kissing to talk about education. In a first-of-its-kind education forum, the site (with the help of sponsor and cohost the American Federation for Children) invited presidential candidates to discuss their vision for public schools. Republicans spoke in August, and Democrats were supposed to take their turn later this month.

But as Politico recently reported, the Democrats declined their invitations. It’s a missed opportunity. Worse, nobody seems to know why the candidates backed out.

Campbell Brown, the Seventy Four’s co-founder and would-be forum moderator, says it’s due to pressure from teachers’ unions (both the AFT and NEA have publically endorsed Hillary Clinton). “What happened here is very clear: The teachers’ unions have gotten to these candidates,” Brown told Politico. “All we asked is that these candidates explain their vision for public education in this country, and how we address the inequality that leaves so many poor children behind.” Representatives from the unions, unsurprisingly, won’t verify her claim. More troubling, the candidates won’t comment on their refusal to join in the debate. They’re remaining...

The after-Arne edition

Arne Duncan’s resignation and legacy, John King’s succession to the crown, Friedrichs and the beginning of the new SCOTUS term, and peer effects in college.

Amber's Research Minute


Terry Ryan

Wikipedia defines judicial activism as “judicial rulings suspected of being based on personal or political considerations rather than on existing law.” The Washington State Supreme Court has veered into the judicial activism fast-lane when it comes to public education in the Evergreen State.

Exhibit one is the recent 6-3 decision by the court declaring the state’s nascent charter school program “unconstitutional.” That decision overrode the will of a majority of the electorate that had voted in 2012 to allow Washington State to open forty charter schools in five years. If it stands, the court’s decision would toss some 1,300 students out of their chosen schools. Many of these children are low income, English language learners, or students with disabilities.

The court’s argument for declaring charters illegal hinged on a 1909 decision as to what constitutes a “common school.” Specifically, the court held that charter schools violate the uniformity clause of the state’s constitution because charters are not common schools controlled by local school boards. And, the court maintained, they unconstitutionally divert funds from common schools. This decision broke with legal precedents set in other states. An analysis by the law firm Jones Day showed, “Washington’s constitution shares many similarities...

If KIPP were a geographic school district, it would roughly be the nation’s sixty-fifth largest, somewhere between Boston and El Paso. With 162 schools and nearly sixty-thousand students, it’s also growing like kudzu, courtesy of a five-year, $50 million scale-up grant awarded in 2010 through the U.S. Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation (i3) program. At that time, KIPP’s stated goal was to double in size while maintaining its positive impact on kids.

Taxpayers seem to be getting a solid return on that investment. A new report from Mathematica, which contracted with the KIPP Foundation under the terms of the i3 grant, finds that “network-wide, KIPP schools have positive, statistically significant, and educationally meaningful impacts on student achievement, particularly at the elementary and middle school grades.” The picture is murkier at the high school level, where KIPP had “educationally meaningful impacts” on students who were new to the network. No statistically significant effects were found among students continuing from KIPP middle schools, however. Still, the high schools have positive effects on “several aspects of college preparation, including discussions about college, applying to college, and course taking.”

The study is based on both lottery-based and quasi-experimental designs in eight KIPP elementary...

The sweetest and shiniest word in the progressive lexicon is “universal.” It connotes equity, equality, and above all fairness. As a practical matter, however, these lofty ideals are undermined when we give everyone the same even if some need more. This is a truth universally acknowledged.

It also seems lost upon New York City’s uber-progressive mayor, Bill de Blasio, who seems oddly determined at times to make worse, not better, the “Tale of Two Cities” dichotomy between rich and poor New York that he rode into office two years ago.

The second year of de Blasio’s signature education initiative, a $300 million program to provide free, full-time pre-K to all New Yorkers, began this fall with troubling data suggesting that it is badly misfiring. Using census data and information from the mayor’s office, Bruce Fuller—a professor of education and public policy at University of California, Berkeley (Berkeley!)— estimates that there are 103,000 four-year-olds eligible for the program. In many instances, however, those who need it most are not being reached.

Children from low-income homes make up the largest share of program participants, accounting for roughly one-third of the sixty-five thousand registrations. But Fuller calculates that more than twelve thousand...

  • In the entire tortured lexicon of bureaucratese, no two words can inspire more dread in the hearts of academic administrators than “Dear Colleague” (well, maybe “NAEP scores,” but that’s a separate issue). President Obama’s Office of Civil Rights has issued a fusillade of “Dear Colleague” letters to educators at every level of schooling over the past few years, relying on the magic of governmental coercion to solve such diverse ills as campus rape, inequitably applied discipline, and the existence of languages besides English. In both the Wall Street Journal and Education Next, R. Shep Melnick has picked apart the legal rationale behind yet another pernicious edict, first disseminated late last year; this one pushes schools to shrink the nationwide racial achievement gap by providing their students with equal access to “resources” (read: funding, and everything else). The policy breezes past two Supreme Court rulings that explicitly reject its legal foundations, forcing schools to meticulously chronicle the “intensity” of their extracurricular activities and the condition of their carpeting if they wish to avoid a federal investigation. Educational disparities among ethnic groups are seriously concerning, but policymakers should consider whether the best way to counter them is
  • ...

Kim Davis, the Rowan (Kentucky) County clerk, is in the spotlight this week for ignoring a federal judge’s order to issue marriage licenses to gay couples seeking to wed. She claims that doing so would violate her Christian faith and her religious liberties. On Tuesday, she added that she was acting “under God’s authority.”

You don’t have to be a Constitutional scholar to know that her legal argument has no merit. As a public official, she took an oath to follow the rule of law. If she believes that doing so would conflict with her religious beliefs, then she should do the honorable thing and resign.

This episode goes far beyond the gay marriage debate, though. It brings to mind another class of public employees: educators. Must they always follow the rule of law—even when it conflicts with their personal beliefs, religious or otherwise? In a system that is overly rule-bound, bureaucratic, and politicized, where is the line between “cage busting” and law breaking? And does it matter that they are government employees instead of elected officials?

Sometimes the answers are clear and straightforward. For instance: Public school science teachers should teach what’s in...

  • 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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Anyone who has spent serious time within the U.S. public education system would likely agree that there are too many chefs in the school governance kitchen. Not only that, some of them are terrible cooks. Which means that great governance is scarce, consensus is hard to achieve, and significant change is rare. Yet our education governance system, lamented and disparaged as it often is, is one of the least understood aspects of American K–12 schooling.  So while it’s easy to agree that “bad” governance gets in the way of doing what’s best for kids, it’s harder to pinpoint just what exactly is so dysfunctional when it comes to running schools. 

To shine a flashlight into this murk, we must first define the governance “system” that we’re talking about. Who exactly makes which kinds of education decisions? State or local? Who has the power? Is that power dispersed or centralized? To what degree can the wider public—not just insiders—participate in policymaking? These are some of the gnarly questions that characterize governance; but because they’re also humdrum and wonky, not many people bother trying to ask them.

Some of this apathy (or is it despair?) arises from the reality...

Ashley Jochim

The push to raise standards and boost outcomes for students has placed states at the center of efforts to improve public education. But as many have observed, few are well positioned to deliver on these aims.

The challenges of advancing reform from the statehouse have led many education reformers to turn to governance. Education governance both determines which institutions have the authority to make education decisions and also shapes how those decisions are made.

In a new report from the Fordham Institute, Dara Zeehandelaar and David Griffith tackle the thorny challenge of depicting the range of governance arrangements that structure state education policy. The authors create a taxonomy classifying the ways that states differ on three dimensions: concentration of decision-making authority at the state versus the local level; distribution of authority among many institutions versus consolidation of authority in only a few; and the degree to which the public can participate in making particular decisions. They combine these dimensions into eight governance types.

The authors reserve judgment on how governance shapes the ability of states to meet their constitutional obligations to students. But they provide some illustrative examples of how governance structures can limit the actions available to states and localities....