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.

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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Alex Medler

Here follows the eighth 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.

To achieve success and scale in the charter sector, nothing else matters without (1) strong authorizing and (2) strong applicants.

The highest-performing charter sectors can’t be measured just by the difference between the average performance of charters and traditional schools. What matters is the full portfolio of schools. Success means there are lots of charter schools and most of them are great, while few schools are failing. If we look at some of the highest-performing jurisdictions—Massachusetts (or really Boston), New Orleans, Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD), New York, and Washington, D.C.—we see strong authorizing and a supply of strong charter applicants. The absence of either fatally undermines quality and scale.

Various support structures lead to regular crops of strong applicants. Because there is no single support that matters most, the nature of the best structure will depend on local assets. Strong authorizing includes the approval of strong proposals, as well as the regular rejection of weak applicants and the timely closure of failing schools. These elements are at the heart of NACSA's One Million Lives campaign. Any jurisdiction would benefit from strong authorizing and great applicants.

Good authorizing is a balancing act

Bad authorizers can either be so hostile...

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Todd Ziebarth

Here follows the seventh 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 short, but unsatisfying, answer to Mike’s question: It’s complicated.

Since we released our first rankings of state charter school laws against our model law in 2010, we’ve been asked about the relationship between a state’s ranking in our report and the results of that state’s charter schools—so much so that we’ll be releasing a new report in a couple of months that begins to tease out this relationship in each state entitled The Health of the Public Charter School Sector: A State-By-State Report. In the meantime, here are a few thoughts about this relationship.

Supportive laws are necessary but not sufficient

First, to quote directly from our model law,

It is important to note that a strong charter law is a necessary but insufficient factor in driving positive results for public charter schools. Experience with public charter schools across the country has shown that there are five primary ingredients of a successful public charter school environment in a state, as demonstrated by strong student results:

  • Supportive laws and regulations (both what is on the books and how it is implemented);
  • Quality authorizers;
  • Effective charter support organizations, such as state charter associations and resource centers;
  • Outstanding school leaders and teachers; and,
  • Engaged parents
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Here follows a statement of principles on the three-sector approach to education reform, which urges charter school supporters to promote vouchers, too—and vice versa. Mike Petrilli and Checker Finn are among its original signers. Add your name today if you agree.

For 50 years, America has struggled to provide low-income students, especially those in inner cities, with high-quality schools. The consequence has been devastating: generational poverty, disenfranchised neighborhoods, and millions of boys and girls robbed of the American Dream.

But we have not been asleep at the switch. Over this half-century, some of our sharpest minds, strongest backs, and deepest pockets have attempted to solve the problem. Decades of effort have been poured into improving district-run schools. Two decades ago, work on a parallel track was launched through the passage of a tax-supported voucher program in Wisconsin and the option to create charter schools in Minnesota. The voucher program provided limited access for low-income parents to send their children to private schools, and the charter school legislation provided for the possibility of the development of new public schools with increased autonomy and accountability.

In spite of all of our best efforts, gains in district schools have been modest. Although chartering has produced many outstanding schools, numerous barriers have impeded the creation of a sufficient number of high-quality charter seats. Even with the expanded choice to the private sector, they also have produced modest results. So despite the expenditure of enormous personal and financial resources, it is still sadly...

Here follows the sixth 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 raises a question that I get all the time from policymakers: what explains the pretty extreme variation we see in charter school outcomes across states? The easy answer is that’s it’s policy, and by changing policy we can ensure quality.

But it’s not that simple. Policy guarantees nothing, and good state laws don’t necessarily result in good schools. Instead, charter quality depends mainly on implementation, school-design development, and the talent pipeline.

Macke Raymond and her colleagues at CREDO have done some initial work with their massive data set to see whether state caps, multiple authorizers, and other factors bear any relation to outcomes. They didn’t find much, and what they did find was sometimes counterintuitive: for example, charter caps were associated with worse quality. In looking over the CREDO outcomes by state, there are also no obvious patterns related to state funding levels—for instance, Pennsylvania charters underperform other public schools, at a cost of $12,000 per pupil, while California charters outperform their peers, for more like $8,000.

Does all this mean that policy doesn’t matter—that charter outcomes are random? Absolutely not. It just means that we haven’t yet amassed the right evidence to know precisely which policies matter...

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