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.

By now, education observers are aware of New York City mayor Bill de Blasio’s incursion on the Big Apple’s charter sector.

No one should be surprised; this was no ambuscade, no lying in wait. He publicly campaigned against charters. He actually called his predecessor’s policy of allowing charter public schools to share public-school space with district public schools “abhorrent.”

This has been a shame for low-income kids, of course, given NYC’s charters’ superb performance. But it has made for 24-karat media fodder.

Hizzoner has picked a fight with Eva Moskowitz, not only the operator of a network of tremendously successful charters but also one of the toughest pugilists in the city’s notoriously combative political squared-circle. The Democratic mayor is now involved in internecine warfare over charters with the state’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, who publicly declared, “We will save charter schools.

But de Blasio’s camp hasn’t turned tail; they’ve trickily tergiversated. Despite their words and deeds, the mayor’s camp is claiming he’s not really against chartershis narrative got hijacked. He likes charters just fine!

Former governor Mario Cuomo, Andrew’s father, brilliantly said, “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.”

Given the mayor’s attempt at playing both sides, his team might be credited with implying a third part of the equation: “You spin in prevarication.”

Though all of this makes for Broadway-ready pyrotechnics, there is an important and as-of-yet unexplored element of this script....

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The National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) has emerged as one of the nation’s staunchest proponents of charter-school quality. In November 2012, it launched its ambitious One Million Lives campaign, the purpose of which is “to bend the quality curve upward.” Among the key strategies to improve quality, while maintaining growth, is to close as many as a thousand low-performing charter schools and to open two thousand high-performing ones. Under the closure-replication strategy, NACSA calculates that one million additional children will enroll in a high-performing school by 2018. In the Year One update, NACSA reports that the campaign is off to a strong start. The upshot: as a result of proactive authorizing practices, 491 promising, new charter schools have opened, while 206 failing schools closed in 2013. These actions affected roughly 232,000 students. The report dishes other morsels of information regarding progress in strengthening accountability, including changes to state law and the commitment from more authorizers to adhere to NACSA’s essential practices. The charter-school sector’s commitment to quality is impressive; if only that could be said about traditional public schools, too.

SOURCE: National Association of Charter School Authorizers, One Million Lives, Year One (Chicago: Author, 2014).

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Last week President Obama announced a five-year, $200 million charitable initiative called My Brother’s Keeper to help young African American men. The program seeks to address the many disparities in outcomes for black men, including large gaps with white men regarding high-school graduation rates, college enrollment and completion rates, lifetime earnings, longevity, and the likelihood of incarceration. According to The New York Times, “early-childhood development, school readiness, educational opportunity, discipline, parenting, and the criminal justice system” will be the foci of the initiative. The President also ordered his administration to “determine the best methods to improve the odds for young men of color.”

We should be thrilled that our President has acknowledged publicly the persistent challenges that young African American men face in modern day America and, more importantly, has pledged to encourage concrete actions to address those challenges. The first step Mr. Obama should take is to push for more private-school choice through vouchers or scholarship programs. The President’s own U.S. Department of Education has already determined that such programs significantly improve educational attainment for African Americans.

Three evaluations of private-school choice programs have followed enough students for sufficiently long to determine their effects on the rates of high-school graduation, college enrollment, or both. A 2010 evaluation of the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program that I led for the U.S. Department of Education found that students offered...

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As legislative sessions across the country continue to wind down, it's worth keeping tabs on some of the big private-school-choice proposals still under consideration. I've already covered the Mississippi education-savings-account proposal, which has the potential to be only the second such program after Arizona. There are also voucher proposals in Tennessee and Alaska that have been well covered elsewhere and may see passage this year. But one state providing a little bit of a late surprise is New York, where legislators are considering an Education Investment Tax Credit that could mean significant additional funding for public schools and privately run scholarship programs.

The latest version of the bill pending in the Assembly is smartly crafted to provide a little bit for everyone. First, individuals or corporations will be able to donate to eligible organizations in order to claim a portion (up to 75 percent of taxes owed or $1 million per filer, whichever is less) of the up to $300 million in dollar-for-dollar credits. Eligible contributions will be restricted so that they are split evenly between public-school programs and private-school scholarships for students living in households making $300,000 or less. A revised Senate version likely will place the income threshold at $500,000—the same income cutoff as Mayor deBlasio's proposal for tax hikes to fund prekindergarten. Under both versions of the bill, teachers could also receive a credit up to $200 for school supplies.

The proposal is especially interesting, not only because it is in a deep...

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“How did we ever lose our way on vocational education? Why did we put it down? Why did we not understand its value?” – Ohio Governor John Kasich, State of the State, February 24, 2014.

As Ohio’s governor rightly remarks, vocational education and the students who participate in it have been second-class citizens for too long. I know that from my own experience attending a Western Pennsylvania high school during the late 1990s, where—permit me to be blunt—our school’s “vo-tech kids” were generally put down, disparaged, and ostracized by other students.

Don’t just take my word for it, however. Surveys call attention to the negative perception of vocational education (a.k.a., “career-and-technical education” or CTE). A study in 2000 found that the “underlying theme” voiced by those in vocational education was the need to “change the perception that CTE offers an inferior curriculum, appropriate only for those students who cannot meet the demands of a college-preparatory program.” Similarly, research for the Nebraska Department of Education in 2010 concluded, “Substantial proportions of Nebraskans believe that CTE students are not respected as students who take more traditional academic courses.”

Marc Tucker of the National Center on Education and the Economy casts some historical light on the demise of vocational education, particularly as it pertains to urban school systems:

Prior to that decade [the 1970s], most medium and large cities had vocational high schools for the trades, many of which were highly regarded selective institutions. . . . But, in...

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The weeping and gnashing of teeth from parents and community members who may be affected by the closure of seven Columbus City Schools is understandable. No one wants to lose institutions that are dear to the heart.

But I would ask this: Where was the outrage from parents and the community when these schools failed to deliver academic results? Why didn’t 700 people come out to the meetings when our own state department of education rated the schools as under-performing? Where were the protests; where were the posters; where were the demands?

For those who might be interested, here’s the dismal three-year performance record of the seven schools on the chopping block. Maybury is the only school in which the case could be made that it’s worth keeping open on the basis of academics.

Source: Ohio Department of Education Notes: In 2012-13, no school received an overall rating. For 2010-11 and 2011-12, “academic emergency” is equivalent to an “F”; “academic watch” is equivalent to a “D”; “continuous improvement” is equivalent to a “C”; “effective” is equivalent to a “B.” High schools do not receive a value-added rating, hence the N/A.

Look, we’ve heard the stories of urban schools where PTA and community meetings go empty. In fact, I’ve sat through a few of them. The disinterest in the school is pitiful. Meantime, it’s even more baffling to see that when a district announces closures, all the sudden people rally around...

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How well do existing pension plans serve charter and urban teachers? The unsurprising answer: not well. At all. Economist Cory Koedel and his colleagues study teacher-pension plans in Missouri, which has three teacher pension plans—Kansas City Public Schools (which covers 3 percent of Missouri teachers), the Public School Retirement System for the City of St. Louis (which covers 4 percent), and the state (which covers the remaining 93 percent). Since there is no reciprocity between the three systems, teachers lose employer contributions if they switch from one to another. Here are three key findings: First, these programs are costly and getting costlier. The employer-contribution rate to fund pension benefits is 8 percent in the KCPS, 14.5 percent in the state system, and 16.5 percent in St Louis. Second, all three are back-loaded, which creates penalties for mobile teachers who leave before they reach their peak pension wealth. For example, they estimate that the likelihood of a teacher in KC staying until she reaches her peak wealth is just 3 percent. So while everyone is contributing to some degree, the benefits are highly concentrated among few teachers in KC. By comparison, 40 percent in the state system are estimated to reach peak pension wealth. Third, the plans are poorly suited for both charter and traditional teachers, especially in urban areas. In the state system, roughly 70 percent of teachers remained on the job after eight years (2005–2012), yet that percentage ranges from 10 to 30 percent in the urban areas of...

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Convention says that low-performing schools are mainly an inner-city problem. To a degree that is the case—urban public-school systems have long struggled to educate their students well. Cleveland’s public schools are something of a poster-child in this respect, and other urban schools systems in Ohio struggle just as mightily. Youngstown City Schools is in “academic distress,” and Columbus’ district had so many problems with academic performance that some of its employees “scrubbed” student records to make it appear better.

That being said, it’s inaccurate to say that weak schools exist only in urban areas. As the maps below demonstrate, inept schools aren’t just an urban problem.

The first map shows the geographic distribution of Ohio’s low-rated public schools (district and charter), along both the state’s achievement and value-added indicator of performance. Many, but not all, of these 218 schools are located in large urban areas (Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo). Yet there are pockets of low-performing schools in other mid-sized towns including Warren (near Youngstown in Northeast Ohio), Lima (Northwest Ohio), and Lorain (west of Cleveland). There are even a few low-rated schools in rural areas.

Map 1: Ohio schools that received a D or F in performance index (achievement) and value-added (learning gains), 2012-13

Click on the map for an interactive view of the data. (The color of the points are related to the school's D/F rating.)

When we home in on the state’s value-added indicator,...

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Which state ranks last of the fifty in fourth-grade math on the NAEP, last in eighth-grade reading on the NAEP, last in Education Week’s Quality Counts report, and last in readiness for science and engineering?

If you guessed Mississippi each time, either you’re up on your education stats or you read the title of the post and went for broke. I don't mean to pick on Mississippians, but it's clear that leaders there need to make some dramatic changes in order to provide a better educational and economic future for their constituents.

In 1999, Governor Jeb Bush led Florida on a journey to improve educational excellence by focusing on third-grade reading, accountability, choice, and other reforms. As a result, it is far better to be a public-school student in Florida today than it was before those reforms were enacted. The Sunshine State’s story shows the power of innovation and the necessity of federalism in public policy. Many of Florida's changes had not been tried in states before but are now being replicated all over the place. Without bold leadership and the freedom to innovate, Florida would likely still be stuck in neutral. Here’s hoping that nearby Mississippi can both replicate some of those successes and also challenge other states to keep up by enacting some of its own innovations.

While far more than any one reform is needed to ensure such improvement, the Magnolia State may find hope in a policy that has been hardly tried before. In fact, Mississippi has the chance to be...

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Well-meaning people can and do quibble over school-choice issues in our line of work. Sometimes the rhetoric becomes calcified and hardline ideological. But in my neighborhood in central Columbus, where a general dislike for “school choice” as a movement resonates, a small education marketplace has quietly sprung up just the same. And it’s all in the name of keeping young families from moving to the ’burbs.

Clintonville evolved in the early twentieth century along new streetcar lines heading north from downtown Columbus, but it has been politically and geographically part of the larger city for decades. Our neighborhood schools belong to the city district, and we have no autonomous government or ward representation on city council. We have what other neighborhoods here have, which is an Area Commission—elected members from various street-bound jurisdictions for whom we vote by paper ballot at the local barber shop or bank every couple of years. Area commissions exist to advise the Columbus City Council on matters pertaining to their neighborhoods but have no power of their own.

Clintonville is a proud collection of the weird and offbeat, and most of us like it that way. It isn’t flashy, but it feels like home.

For the ninth year in a row, the Clintonville Area Commission sponsored an “education fair,” which is designed to show off the schools that students in the area “traditionally” attend. They include traditional district schools, alternative district schools, charters, private schools (both secular and not), and a standalone...

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