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.

Like the swallows returning to Capistrano or the endless lines at Best Buy on Black Friday, there is an annual gathering in Cincinnati that compels folks to camp out for days on end. They leave most of life behind in pursuit of a single goal: a coveted spot in a magnet school.

The campers are parents of incoming Kindergarten students who are convinced that the desired magnet school is the right place for their children. This year, the tents began popping up at the first school nearly two weeks before the opening of the lottery. The parents should be commended for their commitment and dedication.

But what does this annual ritual really signify?

Does it mean that Cincinnati schools are so bad that families will do anything for a better option? Probably not. These are families trying to attend a handful of high-quality magnet schools. The quality and desirability of these schools is a positive development for Cincinnati Public Schools. With over 15,000 students in district schools that received a D or F rating on their performance-index scores last year, the real question is this: Why there aren’t more schools like these? A long line for scarce seats is not a new development in Cincinnati.

Does it mean that Cincinnati’s lottery system is broken? Probably. A two-week campout in November in Southern Ohio seems more like the set up for a reality-competition show than for quality education outcomes. And while Cincinnati Public Schools neither condones nor discourages the...

Jay Greene wants school-choice supporters to relax the testing mandates in the newest and largest voucher programs in the nation. Specifically, these programs require participating students to take their state’s public school assessment, which Greene likens to adhering to a “state vision of a good education.”

Let’s hope these supporters reject his appeal. It’s taken quite a push to get where we are now: a level of accountability in relatively few private school choice programs that may be partly responsible for their success and their political support. Hitting the reverse button would only halt the current momentum of the choice movement, while removing one of the few quality-control mechanisms in place for these programs.

To be sure, Professor Greene is not the first to raise concerns about the use of state assessments. His argument is by now familiar: Forcing government test mandates on private schools dilutes what makes these schools private and will force all schools to become cookie-cutter copies. What if families want something other than the state vision of a good education “encapsulated in state standards and testing?” Greene writes.

It’s not an unreasonable concern; Mike Petrilli, for instance, once pondered the conflict between public education’s “two p’s”—parents and the public. Allowing parents to access a multitude of choices—and not forcing them into the Procrustean Bed of public school—is one of the reasons those of us at Fordham support this reform.

But how much of a threat are the state tests in terms of...

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It seems the largest battle in education policy today centers on the question of whether or not the Obama administration cheerleading for the Common Core State Standards, a state-led initiative, represents an existential threat to federalism. Serious Common Core supporters concede that the federal government (unwisely) dangled incentives for swift state adoption of the standards, while pointing out that the vast majority of instructional decisions will now, as before, remain with local school boards and educators. On the other hand, serious opponents admit as much but worry that locals will have to make significant changes to meet these higher targets and say it is only a matter of time before we see a proposal for a national curriculum. I, for one, think even casual observation of the current debate over standards shows the possibility of a national curriculum to be so remote as to make it not worth discussing, except to say that if it were proposed, many Common Core supporters (myself included) would strongly oppose it.

The “federal overreach” argument used by Common Core opponents is quite perplexing, not only because some claims are so wildly exaggerated, but also because they all but ignore (and thereby excuse) actual and obvious examples of overreach with much larger potential consequences for federalism. If the Common Core debate is truly just a principled stand for states’ rights, why haven’t we heard a word about the specific requirements on school turnaround or teacher quality within the Race to the Top competition? Where was the conservative backlash against the clear disrespect shown to...

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On Tuesday, November 19, I gave the keynote speech at the American Center for School Choice event tied to the release of the report of its Commission on Faith-based Schools. The following is the text (edited for length) as it was prepared.

Thank you so much for having me here today. I truly am honored to have the chance to talk to such a distinguished group of leaders about a subject that I care about so deeply.

OK, OK, I know that’s how all speakers begin. But I actually do mean it this time. Certainly not when I say it other times—but definitely this time!

During my career I’ve bounced between government service and the nonprofit world, where I spend the bulk of my time researching and writing. And whether I’m wearing my bureaucrat hat or my think-tank hat, I make sure to devote some of my energy to trying to preserve inner-city faith-based schools serving low-income kids.

Be forewarned: This next section is going to come across as gallingly self-serving. I promise it’s only half gallingly self-serving; there’s another purpose for the rest of it.

I met some of you during my time at the White House when I organized the White House Summit on Inner-city Children and Faith-based Schools. As you might remember, we were even able to get the President himself to speak there.

Incidentally, the young woman who introduced the President—in that picture—graduated from Archbishop Carroll and is...

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The D.C. Charter Board recently released its annual ranking of charter schools in the nation’s capital, showing that one-third of the schools it sponsors deserve a top-performing, or Tier 1, status. Five schools attained Tier 1 status for the first time this year, bringing the total number of high flyers to twenty-three among sixty-eight that were ranked (at least four schools dropped from Tier 1 status to Tier 2 this year). Most schools were in the middle, and eight dwelled at the bottom, where they risk getting shut down. Still, hurrah for the progress the Board can claim. And hurrah for D.C. kids, who can enjoy the fruits of this endeavor.

The fourth round of the federal Investing in Innovation (i3) initiative has concluded with twenty-five applicants in the winner’s circle. Seven are validation grants (larger awards for ideas with the strongest evidence base) and eighteen are development grants (smaller awards aimed at supporting up-and-coming ideas). The grantees ranged from teacher-collaboration ideas to ed-tech groups, from proposals creating free Common Core instructional resources for teachers to parental-engagement plans. For a take on a past grantee, the Reading Recovery program, check out this week’s Education Gadfly Show podcast.

On Wednesday, Rep. George Miller and Sen. Tom Harkin introduced legislation in the House and Senate to expand access to pre-K programs for four-year-olds. The bill largely adheres to President Obama’s proposal (states will have to promise to link pre-K data to K–12, provide state-funded Kindergarten, and ensure that early-education teachers have bachelor’s degrees)....

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Seriously?That’s what comes to mind after reading this piece in the Columbus Dispatch, which reports that a third school sponsored by the North Central Ohio Education Service Center (NCESC) has run into difficulties. The school seems to be having problems paying its bills, and the school leader has acknowledged that some staff walked off the job—not to mention that two NCESC-sponsored schools ceased operations in mid-October after State Superintendent Dick Ross stepped in because the schools failed to ensure a safe learning environment and to provide basic services for kids.

Every school encounters a few glitches here and there, especially if it’s new. But failing to pay the staff, teachers walking off the job, and vendors bailing because they aren’t being paid? These are not glitches, nor does this dysfunction seem to be confined to a single occurrence or school. According to the Dispatch, there are now—and it’s only October—three NCESC schools that have had difficulties well beyond your run-of-the-mill start-up issues. The entirety of the alleged situation is disconcerting at best.

For all of the charter schools and sponsors (i.e., authorizers) who are working to do it right, including Fordham, this ongoing circus tarnishes us all.

At the end of the November 5th Dispatch article, my first thought was, “How many more?” Would anyone be surprised if one of the four schools that, according to the Dispatch,...

What good is it to offer an abundance of school options if parents don’t know about them?

It may have been heartening this week to see voters in New Jersey and Douglas County, Colorado, elect local and statewide candidates who have campaigned on the need to change the landscape of public education in a way that maximizes school choice. But the reality is that most families who could benefit from these options have no idea they exist. And that is what’s holding back the momentum of the school-choice movement.

Far too many school-choice advocates are still going door to door to promote charter schools, school vouchers, and the like, or they’re putting up billboards and running radio ads to reach their audience. I recently had the pleasure of leading a discussion on marketing school choice at the annual conference of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers in San Diego, and I was blessed the insight of leading school-choice advocates who shared their work in the trenches. But it’s clear that the choice movement relies mostly on old-school marketing efforts when what we need is new-school sophistication.

Running billboard and radio ads and going door to door helps, but it’s not enough. Families need more independent information to make good choices, but there are few institutionalized avenues for parents to explore all their options.

To that end, I propose the following to align with the spread of public and private school options:

Common applications

Districts such as those in New...

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Back in June, we discussed the leadership role that Ohio’s cities were attempting to take in important and overdue efforts to improve education for all students. Central to that discussion was the work in Columbus of Mayor Michael Coleman and the Columbus Education Commission. At that time, we called the story “still in progress” but pointed out that city-based reform of the type the commission envisioned in its final report was worthy of praise and support. Nothing has changed in the interim. The Columbus plan that voters will have the opportunity to fund tomorrow, in the form of a 9.01 mil bond and levy measure, still represents the most promising attempt to improve Columbus schools—dare we say—ever.

Fordham has been supportive of the reform effort and worked with the Mayor’s team and the commission as these reform initiatives were developed. Our former vice president, Terry Ryan, even testified before the commission to bring the best knowledge of charter school excellence to the commissioners through data, research, his own public testimony, and the testimony of CEE-Trust’s Ethan Gray. The commission adopted an ambitious goal to expand the number of high-quality school seats in the city so that all students can attend an A- or B-rated school by 2020. It is both admirable and achievable.

One of the most controversial components of the levy is the allocation of 1 mil to high performing charter schools in Columbus to support, expand, and replicate their schools. Unfortunately, Mayor Coleman went out...

Quick! Name the Ohio school-choice program that has provided students the opportunity to attend a school not operated by their resident school district for the longest period of time. Charter schools? Nope, strike 1. The Cleveland voucher program? Try again, strike 2. Unless you guessed open enrollment, that’s strike 3. Before heading back to the dugout, read on to learn more about this established school-choice program.

Open enrollment, first approved by the legislature in 1989, allows school districts (if they choose) to admit students whose home district is not their own. Perhaps against conventional wisdom, it has become a popular policy for districts. We even analyzed the trend in an April 2013 Gadfly.

According to Ohio Department of Education records, over 80 percent of school districts in the state have opted to participate in some form of open enrollment. There are 432 districts that have opened their doors to students from any other district in the state, and another sixty-two districts have allowed students from adjacent districts to attend their schools.

This year's budget bill (HB 59) created a task force to study open enrollment. The task force is to "review and make recommendations regarding the process by which students may enroll in other school districts under open enrollment and the funding mechanisms associated with open enrollment deductions and credits.” The task force’s findings are to be presented to the Governor and legislature by the end of the year.

In a recent Columbus Dispatch article highlighting the...

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New from a workgroup of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), this report maps an oft-overlooked space in the charter-accountability world: How charters that serve special populations, such as students who have dropped out, are held accountable for performance. Two key points emerge (which are really applicable to all charters): (1) Make the charter contract the central instrument of accountability and (2) be open to different yet detailed and rigorous approaches to evaluating academic success or failure. Interestingly, the report recommends not making significant changes to operational and financial indicators or methods of oversight for alternative schools. Approaches to the performance frameworks can vary from setting different cut scores to wholly different accountability measures specific to alternative schools. The report discusses proficiency, growth, and multiyear graduation rates, as well as providing credit for re-engaging students who have dropped out and improving attendance, mastery of material, and college/career readiness. Some of the more thought-provoking proposed measurements included job stability and time employed in a particular position, reconnecting with family members, personal growth, and volunteer work. For programs targeting formerly incarcerated students, recidivism rates could be examined; for programs that work with addiction, perhaps the time a student remains drug/alcohol free might be a measure. Additionally, the authors also include a synthesis of several studies of dropout prevention (including one that starts in first grade). In Ohio, we as an authorizer are considering re-writing our own accountability agreements with the schools we authorize. Several of the measures—especially the idea of...

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