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.

Yesterday at AEI’s terrific conference on “encouraging new and better schools” via school-choice programs, I presented a paper on what the recently resurgent private-school-choice movement can learn from the 20 years of successes and struggles of charter schooling.

I argued that three lessons from chartering ought to be utilized by choice advocates. The first is school networks. In the charter sector, these are generally called “CMOs” (charter-management organizations); in the private-schools world, they’re not called anything because they don’t yet exist (with just a few exceptions).

By adopting the school-network model, instead of remaining highly independent, private schools could realize economies of scale and huge benefits related to human capital. I also hypothesize that networks would help spawn a private-schools-support ecosystem in the nonprofit sector, akin to the ecosystem that has been developed around charters.

The second lesson relates to school incubation. A number of organizations across the nation have as a central mission helping charters get off the ground. They primarily work in four areas—helping to identify and train school founders and leaders; providing start-up funds to approved schools; giving strategic advice and support during the application process and after the school’s doors open; and advocating for improved policies. Private-school incubators could serve the very same functions, helping to create new, high-quality private schools.

The third lesson is accountability via authorizers. Early choice programs had few if any quality controls, meaning many low-performing private schools participated. Newer...

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At less than an hour, this documentary, directed by Choice Media founder Bob Bowdon, provides a digestible overview of school choice and how it impacts families. The film’s slightly hokey structure is a transcontinental exploration of school choice by train. On its way from California to New York, the train stops in seven cities, using each to focus a different mechanism of school choice, of which a few were particularly compelling:

  • At our stop in Adelanto, California, we meet a group of parents who successfully employed that state’s “parent-trigger” law to close their failing neighborhood school and reopen it as a charter school.
  • In Kansas City, Missouri, we are introduced to that state’s transfer law, which allows students assigned to unaccredited school districts the right to transfer to schools in better ones. We meet a mother and daughter who wake up at 4:00 a.m. because of the long bus ride that her child takes to school each morning to attend a quality public school.
  • Our stop in Erie, Pennsylvania, introduces us to several students who have opted to attend cyber charter schools rather than traditional high schools, and we see that cyber school students have a surprising amount of contact with their teachers via telephone or video chat. 
  • In Topeka, Chicago, Cleveland, and Rochester, we learn about homeschooling, charter schools, vouchers, and private schools, respectively.

You can visit all the stops by attending one of the many screenings as part of the School Choice Week Whistle Stop Tour.

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A state’s laws and policies set the conditions for a thriving charter-school environment. Good policy can ensure that public charters have access to the resources they need and the freedom to innovate, while also ensuring accountability for academic outcomes. But not all state charter laws are created equal. Some uphold the autonomy-accountability promise, while incentivizing, encouraging, and speeding the opening of high-quality schools. Some fall short—sometimes by a little, sometimes by a mile. Now in its fifth year, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’s (NAPCS) annual rating of state charter laws contains twenty components, including how well each state fares with respect to charter caps, authorizer standards and practices, the degree of school autonomy, and funding provisions. Minnesota, Indiana, and Louisiana topped the rankings. (Fordham’s home state of Ohio clocked in at a dismal but well-deserved twenty-eighth out of forty-three jurisdictions.) The biggest movers from 2013 to 2014? Mississippi leapt from forty-third to fourteenth place; Idaho jumped from thirty-second to twentieth; and Indiana moved up from ninth to second. NAPCS commended Mississippi for its “significant overhaul” of the state’s young charter-school law (enacted in 2010). The Magnolia State’s changes included a bump in the cap on start-up and conversion charters and the establishment of a statewide authorizing entity. Both Idaho and Indiana were lauded for strengthening their charter-school-renewal processes. Among the renewal provisions, both states require schools to seek a renewal of their charter from their authorizer, while authorizers must support a renewal (or non-renewal) decision based on school...

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Public Impact has authored a report for NACSA and the Charter School Growth Fund with ten policy recommendations to foster accelerated growth of successful charter schools and school networks. Two themes emerge. The first: Taking a differentiated approach to key aspects of charter-school-authorizing work—school accountability frameworks, school replication, and school renewal—is important. Here, differentiation also means treating high-performing charters differently than others; options include green-lighting multiple schools over several years contingent on the performance of their predecessors and using shorter applications tailored to existing schools, capitalizing on the quantitative and qualitative data that an authorizing office has already collected as part of its oversight duties. The second: State policy must complement those efforts. Recommendations include crafting legislation that builds a statewide community of authorizers committed to scaling quality (e.g., establishing standards for authorizer quality and encouraging school districts to embrace a portfolio management approach); removing or tweaking state caps on charter schools so that only high performers may grow (and, conversely, adopting mandatory closure laws, as we have in Ohio, for perennial low performers); providing capital for incubation and acceleration efforts; being open to school-governance models that support inter and intra-state networks of schools; and integrating a “restart strategy” (i.e., transitioning the charter of a low-performing charter school to a new board and management team). To which we say, bring it on!

SOURCE: Public Impact, Replicating Quality: Policy Recommendations to Support the Replication and Growth of High-Performing Charter Schools and Networks (Chicago: National Association of Charter School Authorizers...

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Today, Bellwether released a new report on the promise of charter schooling in rural America—and the very real challenges facing it.

The paper is part the ROCI initiative, a two-year project on rural education reform funded by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation.

Though I’ve been working on charter issues for more than a decade now, I went into this project knowing relatively little about rural charters. It turns out that this is partially because there are so few of them. There are a mere 785 rural charter schools, and only 111 of them are in the most remote rural areas.

High-performing charters have accomplished great things for many, many inner-city kids, so my colleagues and I wondered whether they could do the same in rural areas. The need is certainly great.

There are 11 million students in rural public schools, and kids in rural America are more likely than their peers in any other geography to live in poverty. Only 27 percent of rural high-school graduates go on to college, and just one in five rural adults has earned a bachelor’s degree.

But bringing chartering to these communities is knottier than I imagined. First, “rural” defies a simple definition. As one scholar put it, the term includes “hollows in the Appalachian Mountains, former sharecroppers’ shacks in the Mississippi Delta, desolate Indian reservations on the Great Plains, and emerging colonia along the Rio Grande.”

Second, since so many of these areas are sparsely populated,...

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Mike Petrilli and Rick Kahlenberg are among my favorite people (I don’t know Sam Chaltain, although I might like him, too), but their piece in Sunday’s Washington Post smacks of nanny-statism rather than school choice and educational effectiveness. (Rick has had such tendencies for a while.)

What they propose—known as “controlled choice”—isn’t all that different from the “forced busing” of yesteryear. It restricts families’ education options and imposes a top-down, government-run, social-engineering scheme based on somebody’s view of the value of racial and socioeconomic integration. It depends on a bureaucrat’s “algorithm” to decide how many left-handed, blue-eyed kids get to go to which schools and how many other kids in those schools will be right handed and brown eyed. (OK, I made up those categories.)

The authors posit that “diversity” per se is an important educational benefit and that integration is good for kids and must therefore be imposed on them, like it or not. And they’re upset that demographic changes underway in various D.C. neighborhoods—gentrification, for the most part—are causing schools in those places to lose their previous ethnic and economic profiles. The inflow of middle- and upper-middle-class families, many of them white, initially “integrates” schools that had previously taught mostly poor, minority youngsters, but eventually squeezes out the latter and “resegregates” the schools with a much paler (and wealthier) complexion. The authors want to brake that second change in order to capture and preserve the “diversity” wrought by the first one.

It’s a fact of life that...

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Checker thinks that Sam Chaltain, Rick Kahlenberg, and I are engaging in “nanny-statism” when we propose a form of “controlled choice” in strategic locations of Washington, D.C., which he likens to “forced busing” and “social engineering.”

Has Checker been watching That 70s Show? (Or maybe American Hustle?) Those are fighting words from the age of Nixon. But they have nothing to do with what we’re suggesting today.

As Checker himself acknowledges, a sizable proportion of parents—rich, poor, white, black, and Hispanic—would like to choose diverse schools for their children. Stress the word “choose.” The question is, without an assist from public policy, will these parents have any diverse schools among which to choose?

Here’s the dilemma: most of the schools in D.C., as elsewhere in the country, are socioeconomically isolated—either uniformly upper middle class (west of Rock Creek Park) or uniformly poor (everywhere else). That’s no surprise—most neighborhoods in Washington are highly segregated, too, and the schools reflect this unfortunate fact.

What’s new, and interesting, is that neighborhoods are starting to change—in some cases, rapidly. Capitol Hill has already gentrified; Columbia Heights, Petworth, Logan Circle/Shaw, and Takoma are on their way. This is great news from a “diverse-schools” perspective, because it means that people of different socioeconomic backgrounds are living close enough to one another that socioeconomically diverse schools are feasible—without busing.

So why not just “let the river run freely,” as Checker proposes? Let schools change naturally, as their neighborhoods are changing naturally,...

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Last night, President Obama promised to use the stroke of his pen to push forward initiatives upon which Congress refuses to act. In the education realm, this is nothing new (see: conditional ESEA waivers) and generally nothing to cheer. But just this morning, the U.S. Department of Education took an executive action that I support strongly, issuing new guidance for the Public Charter Schools Program that will allow charters to use “weighted lotteries” without forfeiting their chance to receive federal start-up funds.

I’ve been making the case for such an allowance for years; Sam Chaltain, Rick Kahlenberg and I did so again just the other day in the Washington Post. The premise is pretty simple: charter schools that want to be socioeconomically diverse sometimes struggle to maintain a healthy balance if they are forced to use a single random lottery. That’s because the best charters often become so popular with middle-class parents that they flood the lotteries and end up taking most of the available seats.

In fact, some of the most successful diverse charter schools, such as the Denver School of Science and Technology and High Tech High, have decided to pass on federal start-up funds so they can use lotteries that achieve their integration goals. Now they won’t have to.

This will also help charter schools, like Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academies, that seek to enroll more English-language learners or students from other underserved subgroups. (New York charters are required by law to serve a...

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President Obama is leaving us on the edge of our seats as to whether he will discuss certain topics in tonight's State of the Union address. But it is a near certainty that he will talk at length about economic mobility and poverty. While we think that's a good thing, we do wish the President would be more open minded toward policies with a proven track record in helping to grow the economy and lift people out of poverty, including school choice.

New legislation released today by Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and a complementary bill from Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) released earlier this month show that Republicans see education reform as a major part of their strategy to help our least fortunate neighbors.

Of the two proposals, Senator Alexander's Scholarship for Kids Act is the boldest and would fundamentally reshape the federal education-policy landscape in this country. He repeatedly emphasized in remarks today at the American Enterprise Institute that the program would be voluntary for states. Still, states with even limited school-choice programs could feel its impact. Much of the hype deals with the way it would bolster private-school-choice programs, but it would essentially supercharge any school-choice program, including those that allow charter schools or even public-school “open enrollment.” To do this, the bill allows approximately eleven million children to bring an estimated $2,100 scholarship to the school of their choice.

ESEA requirements dealing with assessments and reporting would remain, but many other mandates would be scrapped, as would about eighty programs, funding...

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Whitney Marcavage

The American Federation for Children applauds the folks over at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute for stirring up debate about academic accountability within private-school-choice programs via the release of their policy “toolkit” last week. It’s an important conversation to have.

As the only national educational-choice organization that works to elect state policymakers who support parental choice, lobbies for high-quality legislation, and ensures that the laws work for kids, we’ve got a pretty good sense of the policy and political questions regarding accountability in private-school-choice programs. 
We support accountability in publicly funded private-school-choice programs, and our model legislation spells out the very reasonable administrative, financial, and academic accountability measures we believe are necessary to ensure quality, sustainability, and growth in these vitally important programs. Transparency is important for both parents and policymakers, and AFC believes that voucher and scholarship-tax-credit students should take either state assessments or a nationally norm-referenced test and that the results should be reported publicly. It is perfectly reasonable (1) to know whether children enrolled in these programs are making academic progress and (2) to acknowledge and address the issue of whether poor-quality schools should participate in these programs.

It is also important to recognize that the children entering these programs are typically behind their peers academically, regardless of whether they are entering in Kindergarten or higher grades. It is not reasonable to use the snapshot of a voucher student’s first-year test score (state assessment or nationally norm-referenced test) to pass judgment on the school’s performance. It...

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