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.

Nearly everyone agrees that high-quality pre-kindergarten is a worthy investment. Calls to expand it at public expense are born from a handful of well-known (and very costly) intensive models that appeared to deliver long-term positive effects for poor children: improved school readiness, increased graduation rates, and even the mitigation of risk factors like teen pregnancy and incarceration. These oft-cited outcomes are compelling. So is the urge to level the playing field for children who arrive at school with a thirty million word gap. But an actionable definition of “high quality” remains elusive, and studies of large, scaled up pre-K programs have shown mixed results.

The latest study from Vanderbilt University’s Peabody Research Institute adds valuable evidence to the discussion of whether, when, and how pre-kindergarten is a worthy investment. In 2009, in conjunction with the Tennessee Department of Education, the institute launched a rigorous study of the state’s voluntary pre-kindergarten program (TN-VPK). This is a full-day program targeted toward exceptionally at-risk four-year-olds; researchers tracked two cohorts of children (those applying in 2009–10 and 2010–11) through the end of their third-grade years (2013–14 and 2014–15 respectively). Oversubscribed programs enabled a random design whereby children enrolled in...

Since last December, charter schools have been a hot topic in Ohio. Because of scandals in the Ohio Department of Education and the missteps of some Ohio charter schools, many folks in Ohio have a negative view of the entire sector. Fortunately, there are several networks across the nation that challenge the assertion that charters are mismanaged, failed experiments. Even better, recent developments in the Ohio charter sector—including better laws, better funding, and new grant money—increase the possibility that Ohio could woo some of these high-performing charter networks to the Buckeye State. Let’s examine a few of the networks that Ohio should consider recruiting.

Noble Network of Charter Schools

Who they are: The Noble Network operates seventeen schools in Chicago (sixteen high schools and one middle school) and serves approximately eleven thousand students from more than seventy Chicago communities. The first Noble school was opened in 1999 by two Chicago Public Schools teachers. The network’s mission is to prepare low-income students for college and life; the student population is 98 percent minority and 89 percent low-income. Noble uses extended school days (and years) and offers athletics and arts programs. Its...

In December 2014, Ohio Governor John Kasich promised wholesale charter school reform in the new year. “We are going to fix the lack of regulation on charter schools,” Kasich remarked. Now, thanks to the fearless leadership of the governor and members of the legislature, Ohio has revamped its charter law. Most impressively, the charter legislation that overwhelmingly passed last week drew bipartisan support and praise from editorial boards across the state.

It’s been a long road to comprehensive charter reform in Ohio. When the Buckeye State enacted its charter law in 1997, it became a national pioneer in charter quantity. Disappointingly, it has not been a leader on quality. To be sure, there are examples of phenomenal charter schools. Yet too many have struggled, and a surprising number of Ohio charters have failed altogether. The predictable result is that on average, Ohio charter school students have fallen behind academically. A 2014 study by CREDO found Buckeye charter students losing forty-three days of learning in math and fourteen days of learning in reading relative to their district peers.

As regular Gadfly readers know, we at Fordham have consistently voiced concerns about our home state’s ailing charter sector. In our view, many of these...

The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) sees itself as an “independent watchdog of foundations.” But is clearly an organization with a strong “social justice” bent. It should surprise no one that this report from its Philamplify unit looks largely askance at the Walton Family Foundation’s grant making in education. WFF and NCRP may both get out of bed each morning resolved to advance the cause of social justice, but they operate on very different theories of action. Everything that follows is a function of these differences.

For example, the report criticizes WFF’s “overreliance” on market-based reform vehicles. This is a bit like criticizing a fish for its overreliance on water. Walton’s support of charter schools and choice does not “hinder the transformative potential of the foundation’s education program”; it is the transformative potential of its program. Similarly, the report holds that the expansion of high-quality charter schools and related advocacy have created “meaningful benefits for individual students and families, but have not achieved far-reaching, sustainable and equitable system-wide improvement”—a finding that is a mere two or three generations premature (and elides the utter failure of much longer-standing democratic institutions to bring about those same ends).

Affluent Americans, by dint...

On October 7, 2015, the Ohio legislature overwhelmingly passed House Bill 2 (HB 2). The bill significantly strengthens the accountability structures that govern Ohio’s charter sector without compromising the school level autonomy that is critical to the charter school model. If implemented with fidelity, the bill’s provisions hold the promise of dramatically improving the educational outcomes for the 120,000 students who attend more than 350 Ohio charter schools. This landmark reform legislation has had months of public hearings and debate, and it won bi-partisan support in both the Senate and the House. The key areas of reform are as follows:

1. Strengthening State Oversight of Sponsors[1]

As the entities responsible for opening schools and holding them accountable for performance, sponsors are the gatekeepers of overall charter-sector quality. HB 2 ensures that only high-quality sponsors are allowed to authorize schools by requiring sponsors to obtain state approval before sponsoring schools and by strengthening the sponsor-evaluation system.

A. State approval of sponsors

  • Requires all new and existing sponsors (except two[2]) to enter into a contract with ODE in order to sponsor schools.
  • Requires such contracts to include stipulations on when ODE can intervene or
  • ...

The Akron Beacon Journal recently reported on the struggles of Next Frontier Academy, a charter school whose failures have included incomplete student records, missing funds, inflated enrollment figures, an inability to make payroll and rent, and student-on-student (and student-on-staff) violence that went unreported to the police. This type of educational malpractice ought to make everyone angry—especially charter school supporters and allies. Mercifully—for its forty students and Ohio’s taxpayers alike—the school closed this summer.

The closure isn’t an anomaly in the Buckeye State. Since the charter school movement’s inception in 1997, over two hundred schools have shut their doors. According to the Beacon Journal, “more charter schools closed last year than at any point in the industry’s seventeen-year history in Ohio.”

Closure isn’t necessarily a terrible thing. It certainly isn’t proof that the movement has failed, as some critics suggest. Charter schools that are under-enrolled, financially unstable, or academically deficient should be closed. This feature sets them apart from traditional public schools that stay open forever regardless of performance, and it should be embraced. Moreover, evidence suggests that students are the winners when low-performing schools are closed, despite the initial disruption and inconvenience that may occur. A Fordham...

In the age of charter schools, Common Core, test-based teacher evaluations, and other hot-button education reform issues, Catholic schools have largely taken a backseat in our public conversations. When we do read about them in the media, it is often bad news: financial struggles, declining enrollment, closures. As recently as last week, headlines have spoken of the “demise” of urban Catholic schools.

As the superintendent of Partnership Schools, a network of six Catholic schools in Harlem and the South Bronx, I know the challenges our schools face. But the mood of gloom and doom misses the bigger story—an unprecedented partnership among parents, teachers, church leaders, and philanthropists that is setting the stage for an urban Catholic school revival.

This week, between his Pope Francis’s visit with world leaders at the United Nations and his audience with tens of thousands at Madison Square Garden, he has chosen to make a quiet stop to visit with students and families at one of the schools in our network, Our Lady Queen of Angels.

This is the first time a pope has ever visited an American parochial school, and his timing couldn’t be better. Francis brings with him a renewed focus on the service and social...

In the fall of 1996, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) implemented a new accountability system that placed 20 percent of its schools on “probation.” Poor reading test scores made up the sole criterion for censure, and those scarlet-lettered schools were plastered on the front page of both Chicago newspapers. A new study by Peter Rich and Jennifer Jennings of NYU takes a look at enrollment changes in these “probation schools,” both before and after the imposition of the new accountability system. The authors attempt to determine if the addition of new information (“This school is not performing up to par”) motivated more or different school change decisions among families.

1996 may seem like ancient history to education reformers, but the study illustrates the perennial power of information to motivate school choice decisions. In 1996, CPS had (as it still does) an open enrollment policy that allows any family to choose any school in the district other than their assigned one, provided there is space available. Since the district provided no transportation to students either before or after the policy was imposed, that issue was moot. The number of schools and seats within the district also stayed the same. In other...

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...

During his time in the United States, Pope Francis will make a quiet stop at East Harlem’s Our Lady Queen of Angels. His visit to this 120-year-old elementary school, which educates an overwhelmingly low-income and minority student body, underscores the Church’s centuries-long commitment to the disadvantaged. But it will also shine a light on an unreported story in urban education: the budding renaissance of Catholic schools.

For fifty years, inner-city Catholic schools have been shuttering, victims of shifting city demographics, changes in the workforce, the advent of charter schooling, and much more. Impoverished families have too few accessible school options to begin with, so this erosion of parochial schools has been especially painful. A substantial body of evidence shows that Catholic schools have an unusual ability to help underserved kids succeed. Newer research suggests that longstanding urban Catholic schools foster social capital outside their walls, helping to decrease crime and other societal ills.

In the early 1970s, Daniel Patrick Moynihan (a White House adviser at the time) saw a looming crisis and warned President Nixon about the tragic consequences if these schools disappeared. Little was done; as a White House aide thirty-five years later, I was...