Quality Choices

Nationally and in Ohio, we strive to develop policies and practices leading to a lively, accessible marketplace of high-quality education options for every young American (including charter schools, magnet schools, voucher programs, and online courses), as well as families empowered and informed so that they can successfully engage with that marketplace.

For the past few years, Russ Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution has ranked the nation’s hundred largest school districts based on the amount of school choice they give to families and the degree to which they promote competition between schools. In many ways, these rankings are similar to Fordham’s own choice-friendly cities list, though the unit of analysis and metric differ somewhat. As in prior years, five of Brookings’s thirteen indicators concern the availability, accessibility, comparability, clarity, and relevance of information about school performance—a far heavier emphasis than one finds in Fordham’s metric. The other eight indicators deal with topics such as school closure, transportation, and the existence of a common application for district schools, several of which are common to both reports.

Though not one of the nation’s largest districts, the Recovery School District in New Orleans is again included in the Brookings rankings because of its unique status within the school choice movement. Once again, it ranks first overall. Yet in the report accompanying this year’s rankings, Whitehurst argues that because of its unique circumstances, New Orleans isn’t a realistic model for other districts. He points instead to Denver, now listed second overall and first among large school...

Fordham Ohio’s latest report – Quality in Adversity: Lessons from Ohio’s best charter schools – was released on January 27. You can read the report foreword elsewhere in this issue, and now you can check out the event video by clicking here.

Our principal investigators presented the findings of their survey of the leaders of the top charter schools in the state and moderated a panel of those leaders on topics such as sector quality, accountability, and replication and growth.

The report’s findings and the event garnered attention in media outlets both in the Buckeye State and nationwide. Here’s a snapshot of the coverage:

  • The Columbus Dispatch and the Cincinnati Enquirer discussed the findings on the day of release, comparing them to the papers’ previous reportage on charter school issues.
  • Statewide public radio covered the report and the release event, interviewing the researchers, the panelists, and even an audience member. A staffer from Democrats for Ed Reform was also on hand for the event and wove a very personal story into her observations.
  • National notices were brief but important. Ohio’s top charter schools deserve to be heard above all of the
  • ...

On November 1, 2015, Governor John Kasich signed landmark legislation to reform charter schools—House Bill 2, which strengthens the governance of Ohio’s charter sector and holds its key actors more accountable for their performance. These reforms lay the foundation for higher-quality charter schools and better outcomes for children. In time, we expect that the tougher accountability measures in Ohio’s revamped charter law will purge this sector of its lowest-performing schools, those that demonstrate no improvement (or worse) over the schools to which they serve as alternatives. However, simply eliminating ineffective schools is not nearly enough to create the opportunities Ohio children need; simultaneously, state policymakers should nurture the growth and replication of excellent schools.

Ohio already has some exemplary charters—a beachhead and benchmark for future sector quality—but the need for more high-quality schools in urban communities remains acute. In Columbus alone, more than 16,000 children attended truly dismal district or charter schools in 2013–14 (defined as a school that received a D or F for student growth and achievement). Equally staggering numbers of students attended low-performing schools in Cincinnati and Cleveland: 15,000 and 19,000 students, respectively. Taken together, roughly 75,000 youngsters in Ohio’s eight major cities (or about 30 percent...

We’ve learned a few lessons about school choice over the past few decades. Key among those lessons are that quantity does not equal quality and that conditions must be right for choice to flourish. Good intentions only take you so far; sturdy plants grow when seeds are planted in fertile ground. 

We learned as much five years ago when we teamed up with Rick Hess on America’s Best (and Worst) Cities for School Reform, a study that explored the ideal conditions for school reform at the city level. We found that too few of our big cities possessed the talent, leadership, infrastructure, culture, and resources to beckon enterprising reformers and then help them succeed.

But we also found some innovators on that list of cities, many of which served as “proof points” and role models for stodgier places. (Especially notable were New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and New York City.)

Now we’re back with a “spinoff,” America’s Best (and Worst) Cities for School Choice, which focuses on school choice specifically and considers many additional questions—but again demonstrates the spectrum of receptivity to fundamental education reform when one looks across cities.

Priscilla (Penny) Wohlstetter, a distinguished research professor at...

Robin Lake and Michael DeArmond

At CRPE, we believe strongly in taking a city-wide view of education. The reality of urban education these days is a complicated mash-up of schools run by districts, charter providers, independent private schools, and sometimes even state agencies. It’s usually the case, however, that research reports (e.g., the NAEP TUDA, the CREDO studies, the Brookings Choice report) focus only on a small portion of that picture. We were therefore happy to see that Fordham’s new study on school choice took a specifically urban view to identify the most “choice-friendly” cities in the country. As Rick Hess described it, the report is basically a gardener’s guide: Through an exhaustive array of indicators, the authors have developed a list of soil components that they believe should make for a healthy choice environment.

We produced our own city-wide indicators a few months ago. In Measuring Up: Educational Improvement and Opportunity in 50 Cities, we assessed all public schools on a variety of outcomes: what share of schools were performing above other schools with similar demographics, how quickly all the cities’ schools (both charter- and district-run) were improving compared to other schools in the state, what percentage of low-income students had access to high-performing schools,...

National School Choice Week (NSCW) may fall in January (rather than December), but it seems to herald a season of hope this year. Signs of progress can be seen in the week’s sudden prominence (the first NSCW featured 150 events, while 2016’s features over sixteen thousand) and in the long list of mayors and governors officially recognizing it. But those numbers don’t tell the whole story. Over the last few years, political will seems to have coalesced around the issue. Families and educators are taking to the streets to defend their schools, and local leaders are responding to that pressure with action. As more voters come to value their educational options, it’s starting to feel like every week is School Choice Week.

Still, we should be wary of spiking the football prematurely, given how much work remains to be done in some parts of the country. At the end of last year, Fordham published one of the biggest studies in its history, and certainly the most detailed and wide-ranging survey of urban school choice ever conducted: America’s Best (and Worst) Cities for School Choice. Using an array of indicators touching on everything from funding disparities to the tone of local media...

As my Fordham colleague David Griffith wrote late last year in a post accompanying the release of The Best (and Worst) Cities for School Choice, resistance to the spread of parental choice in education is futile. The genie is out of the bottle, and there’s no going back. That’s not to say that political resistance from some quarters will simply die down, or that we’ll proceed without setbacks. Far from it. But as choice in general and charter schooling in particular continue to grow, they build formidable constituencies. Nobody is marching across the Brooklyn Bridge to defend Common Core or standardized testing. But parents whose children benefit from choice are not going to surrender it without a fight.

The most important questions about school choice are no longer “whether,” but “how” and “where” and “which kinds” and “how many.” And the most interesting debates are no longer waged between choice advocates and opponents, but within the school choice movement itself. Just like the raging family feuds within each of our political parties, the divisions are real. And they run deep. That’s because the movement’s “big tent” now has factions in its various folds and corners that agree on parental choice but little...

Education Cities is a nonprofit network of thirty-one city-based organizations in twenty-four cities that works to “dramatically increase the number of great public schools across the country.” As a practical matter, that means they champion, convene, and court high-quality charter schools to open or come to their respective burgs. They call the local folks who do the courting “harbormasters.” Like their nautical namesakes, these figures “facilitate safe and cooperative navigation in a challenging space.” Thus, this report functions as advice. It seeks to answer a few questions: “What do operators want? What roles and activities of local harbormasters are most, and least, helpful to those running great schools?” The answers, although not particularly surprising, are worthwhile. Good charter operators want to go where there’s a need, where they are wanted (e.g., a pro-charter political climate), and where they can reliably attract talent in the form of both teachers and leaders. Funding support, either directly or through opened doors, doesn’t hurt either.

So what does an education harbormaster do, exactly? One or more of the following: They invest in high-quality school growth, strengthen talent pipelines, advocate for choice-friendly policies, and/or rally community support. The report is based on interviews with eighteen...

I’ve dedicated a big part of my career to expanding school choice. I think it’s the right thing to do for kids, families, educators, neighborhoods, civil society, and much else. In fact, I’m convinced that years from now, students of history will be scandalized to learn that we used to have a K–12 system defined by one government provider in each geographic area.

“Do you mean,” they’ll ask, “that kids were actually assigned to schools based on home address, even if those schools were persistently underperforming?”

But probably the most important lesson I’ve learned over the last fifteen years—the reason why school choice progress moves so slowly—is this: An education system without school choice makes perfect sense from the point of view of central administrators.

In fact, the district-based system (a single public sector operator of schools) that we’ve had for the last century is extraordinarily rational when viewed from above. A city has lots of kids, and those kids need to be educated. A central schooling authority will take care of it.

The central authority looks at a map and partitions the city into similarly populated sections, each with its own “neighborhood school.” For simplicity’s sake, those schools can be named...

Penny Wohlstetter and her coauthors have delivered a terrific new Fordham study, “America’s Best (and Worst) Cities for School Choice.” It finds a creative, concrete, and unusually useful way to get under the hood and delve into messy questions about the availability of choice, quality control, political support, and the effects of policy environment. The result is exceptionally useful for understanding what individual cities are doing and contemplating how they might do better.

Wohlstetter has powerfully extended an earlier study that I did with Fordham back in 2010, “The Nation’s Best (and Worst) Cities for School Reform.” That study looked at education ecosystems, examining a broad set of variables that included philanthropic support, political leadership, bureaucratic burden, and the talent pool. Here, Wohlstetter looks specifically at the issue of choice, which allows her to go deeper and get more granular. She examines the entire picture of choice in thirty cities, including charter, magnet, and private schools. She finds that New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and Denver lead the pack; that New York City is becoming less hospitable to choice under Mayor de Blasio; and that some southern cities are surprisingly strong on choice.

This kind of analysis is invaluable...

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