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.

Fordham has long been a supporter of results-based accountability for private-school choice programs. In January, we released a “policy toolkit” that recommended, among other measures, that all students who receive a voucher (or tax-credit scholarship) be required to participate in state assessments and that those results be made publicly available at the school level (except when doing so would violate student privacy).

This rustled a few libertarian and conservative feathers: the folks at Cato called this “the Common Coring of private schools,” James Shuls yelled “Don’t Test Me, Bro!,” and Jay Greene reversed his lifelong commitment to standards-based reform.  (Many wonks opined in support of our accountability recommendations, too.)

While we didn’t agree with the all of the arguments forwarded by our friends, we did come to see the risk to private-school autonomy and innovation that a test-based accountability system could create. We also understood the particular sensitivity around using Common Core tests for this purpose. So in April, in the National Review, we offered an olive branch:

Without backing away from our commitment to the inseparability of the two tracks of education reform, we see room for compromise on specifics. Yes, some degree of transparency and accountability is essential for all choice schools. We don’t buy the argument that we should leave it to “parental choice alone”; experience in the real world demonstrates (here as in every other market that we know of) that some external quality control is needed if

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Over the past three weeks, Fordham’s Flypaper blog hosted the charter school wonk-a-thon, an exercise in punditry and policy analysis that exceeded all expectations. (Congrats to our winning wonk,Joe Siedlecki of the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation.) Let me ambitiously attempt to synthesize the major arguments into a unified theory: the Wise Wonks’ Hierarchy of Charter School Quality.

At the bottom of our pyramid are Charter States in Name Only. These are the ones with nominal charter laws but very few actual charter schools. That’s because they only allow entities to authorize charter schools that don’t like charters (i.e., traditional school districts) and/or because they provide paltry funding and/or because they don’t offer schools the autonomy that would make starting a charter worth the effort.

One level up, we find Bad Charter Sectors. These are the states at the bottom of the heap when it comes to test-score gains as measured by CREDO* and other sophisticated analyses. (No, test scores and score gains aren’t everything, but let’s assume for now that these indicators relate to the other stuff we also care about, such as long-term student success.) Their charters mostly falter because of some combination of low-quality authorizers (unselective when handing out charters, unwilling to shut down low performers) and mediocre funding. (In a few cases, such as Arizona, there were major problems in...

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Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of the most awesome dudes on the planet right now, using his skills as a communicator to take science into primetime television. Tyson hopes to bring the general public from their small place on Earth into the wonder of the Cosmos again.

I was reminded of one aspect of Tyson’s personal journey last week; specifically, this excerpt from a profile of him which appeared in The New Yorker back in February:

Not long ago, Tyson’s elementary school, P.S. 81, invited him to give a commencement address; he declined. He recalls telling the administrators, “I am where I am not because of what happened in school but in spite of it, and that is probably not what you want me to say. Call me back, and I will address your teachers and give them a piece of my mind.”

Evidently, Tyson was discouraged from pursuing an interest in science, because he was an “undistinguished” grade-school student, among other impediments he describes. More than once, he was on the receiving end of active dissuasion from pursuing his passion for science. Such discouragement might stymie most students. Luckily, he was an extraordinary individual determined to succeed. Tyson would overcome the odds stacked against him, attending Harvard as an undergraduate and the University of Texas for postgraduate work in astrophysics. As he tells it, the efforts to divert him from his lofty goals continued all the way through his time in higher education.

A recent...

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Ladies and gentlemen, the voters have spoken and the wisest wonk in the land is…

Joe Siedlecki of the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, edging out Michael Goldstein of Match Education, 35 to 27 percent. It’s the biggest upset since Brat beat Cantor! (Granted, that just happened Tuesday.)

Stay tuned for my take on the wonk-a-thon, coming early next week. Until then, Joe, enjoy the sweet, sweet victory, and blast this song around your home all weekend long.

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A common gripe among choice kvetchers is that private schools that participate in voucher and tax-credit scholarship programs “cherry pick” the best students. This research by University of California professor Cassandra Hart finds evidence to the contrary. After comparing the 2,764 elementary-aged students who applied to the Florida Tax Credit (FTC) scholarship program (participants) to the 555,271 students who were eligible but chose not to apply (nonparticipants), Hart found that participants disproportionately came from public schools with lower academic quality and higher rates of violence than nonparticipants. What’s more, participating students had significantly lower math and reading scores than their nonparticipating peers, giving the lie to the “cherry-picking” argument. Interestingly, Hart also found that, relative to students who did not participate in the voucher program, participants were more likely to attend school in areas with stronger private-school options and weaker charter and open-enrollment alternatives. This suggests that, rather than looking for religious or private schooling in particular, many parents are searching for a better alternative than their zoned school and might avail themselves of quality public-school choices, if such existed. 

SOURCE: Cassandra M. D. Hart, “Contexts Matter: Selection in Means-Tested School Voucher Programs,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 26(2), June 2014: 186–206.

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While proponents of school choice often base their case on student achievement—contending that choice-based accountability leads to school improvement and stronger pupil attainments—opponents seem likelier to argue against choice on the grounds that it fractures communities and undermines democratic values. This dynamic is unfortunate because it leaves the impression that the advancement of school choice is hostile to—or at least indifferent to—issues of community and democracy. The reality, however, is that nothing could be farther from the truth.

There is no doubt that opponents of school choice are spilling more ink than reformers on this question of education for democracy and community. It is, for instance, the mission of the new Network for Public Education to “fight to protect, preserve and strengthen our public school system, an essential institution in a democratic society.” And education historian Diane Ravitch repeatedly makes the case that the traditional public school system is “one of the foundation stones of our democracy” and that “an attack on public education is an attack on democracy.”

However, the case that the traditional school system is the only or even the best path to upholding community and democracy is remarkably weak. In fact, a close look at the history of traditional public education reveals the strongly anti-democratic strains of the common schools movement, some of which we still live with today (a topic that receives a thoughtful book-length discussion in Charles Glenn’s Myth of the Common School).

The troubling but often forgotten truth

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Kara Kerwin

Here follows the eleventh entry in Fordham’s “Charter School Policy Wonk-a-Thon,” in which Mike Petrilli challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to take a stab at explaining why some charter sectors outpace their local district schools while others are falling behind.

Mike posed an extremely important question at the start of this wonk-a-thon: “How to build a high-quality charter school sector?”

With now over a million students on charter school waiting lists, we reformers ought to be seeking the answer to this question with a sense of urgency.

Simply stated, we need more choices in the type of education available to families. We need more children sitting in more seats in more schools made available by more choice. We need more public discussions about school choice, truthful and deeper conversations, in forums that matter.

We need more people—moms and dads, community groups, elected officials—calling for more options in education. And we need to give more power to parents over their own children’s education.

Unfortunately, too few activities in today’s education-reform movement, especially when it comes to charter schools, have focus primarily on expanding all options available to schoolchildren and expanding parents’ access to those options.

Many current policies, proposals, and practices artificially and unnecessarily constrain growth and deter investment in schools of choice. Some risk is inherent in innovation and growth. There is greater risk—especially to our nation’s children—from setting limits on the expansion of school choice.

It is time to push...

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Joe Siedlecki

Here follows the tenth entry in Fordham’s “Charter School Policy Wonk-a-Thon,” in which Mike Petrilli challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to take a stab at explaining why some cities’ charter sectors outpace their district schools while others fall behind.

In a recent column for USA Today, AEI’s Rick Hess and Michael McShane argued that “creeping bureaucratization and regulation are endangering the entire charter school movement.” I’d argue the opposite: the real danger to the charter movement is lack of effective regulatory enforcement.

In their column, Hess and McShane put the best possible face on charter successes:

Objective analysis has also found charter schools to be successful, particularly with students from low income backgrounds. In 2013, researchers at Stanford University studied charter schools in twenty-seven states and found that, on average, students in charter schools outperform traditional public school students in reading and do about the same in math. Students below the poverty line and African American students were both found to fare better in charter than in public schools when their standardized test scores were disaggregated.

Certainly there have been sector-wide improvements since 2009, when the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO, home of the Stanford researchers cited above) issued a highly influential report, which found “a disturbing—and far-reaching—subset of poorly performing charter schools.” CREDO’s 2013 update notes important improvements and can indeed be summarized at the broadest level (as Hess and McShane have done) as positive.

But children are educated at individual...

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Marta Reyes Newberry

Here follows the ninth entry in Fordham’s “Charter School Policy Wonk-a-Thon,” in which Mike Petrilli challenged a number of prominent scholars, practitioners, and policy analysts to take a stab at explaining why some charter sectors outpace their local district schools while others are falling behind.

The Gadfly has provided an important public service in seeking insights from some of the country’s best charter school thinkers on “why some charter sectors outpace their local district schools while others are falling behind.” As two old charter hands (one of us worked for Fordham in Dayton for twelve years on all manner of charter issues, while the other spent more than twenty years in California helping to rebuild that state’s charter program), we’ve learned a thing or two about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to charters and chartering.

Most of the lessons from the Gadfly’s charter series resonate with us. We agree that great charter sectors invariably tap top talent, get the balance right between operational freedoms and accountability for performance (or come close), and have the support and encouragement of significant friends (funders, political and policy, and business). Troubled charter sectors, on the other hand, allow almost anyone with a pulse to open a school, fluctuate wildly between letting a thousand flowers bloom and efforts to shut down all charters, and have at least as many enemies as friends.

What surprised us, however, was a paragraph in Michael Goldstein’s piece about charters in Boston that claimed,...

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