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.

“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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The nearly 330 students at KIPP Columbus (aka KIPP Journey Academy) currently learn in a former city school facility. The building itself leaves much to be desired, but KIPP Columbus has made it their dutiful home since the fall of 2008, KIPP’s first year of operation. Since that time, the board and KIPP team have been focused on doing what is best for their students by pushing them to work hard, focusing on results, and helping them climb the mountain to and through college. KIPP’s students come from traditionally underserved backgrounds with nearly 90 percent of the student population economically disadvantaged.

Our Ohio team had the good fortune of spending a morning at the construction site of the KIPP Columbus campus at the former Bridgeview Golf Course.  The new campus, roughly five miles north of its present location, is set to open this fall. (Fordham proudly sponsors KIPP.) We met with Hannah Powell, the executive director of KIPP Columbus, who gave us the scoop on the new school and a guided tour of the site. The campus will integrate safety, technology, and learning design with ample room for collaboration, small group activity and community spaces. Throughout the building, the natural landscape is emphasized, with plentiful open space and large windows that allow for natural lighting, and there are plans for using the surroundings for STEM- and environmental-focused education elements.

Things are moving fast. From the purchase of the property in summer of 2013 to a nearly round-the-clock construction site,...

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In the 1993 comedy Groundhog Day, Bill Murray relived February 2nd day after day. The Ohio charter-school sector is experiencing its own Groundhog Day moment with every struggle seemingly like the one before—with no end in sight.

Last week, the Toledo Blade brought us news of another charter-school closing. Secor Gardens Academy, which first opened last fall, closed abruptly over the weekend of February 8, sending parents scrambling to find a place to send their children. Maddeningly, the North Central Ohio Education Service Center (NCOESC was characterized in the Blade as defending its own performance as the school’s sponsor.

Yes, this NCOESC is the same one that sponsored two schools infamously closed in October 2013 by State Superintendent Richard Ross for being “an educational travesty.” A couple schools it sponsored, including one with which another sponsor had cut ties due to low performance, closed in December. Meanwhile, the NCOESC has drawn attention for its practice of selling services to schools it sponsors. I’m not sure that this sponsor gets it—but luckily, others are starting to do so.

Fresh off of his comprehensive investigation of the data scandal in Columbus City Schools, Auditor of State Dave Yost announced last week that he plans to take a closer look at charter sponsors, including NCOESC. Yost’s plans currently call for auditing three sponsors (NCOESC, St. Aloysius Orphanage, and Warren County Educational Service...

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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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Efforts at a common, one-stop school-application process, a.k.a. “universal enrollment,” are underway for the first time in Washington, D.C.,  and Newark, New Jersey, and are under consideration in Philadelphia. Universal enrollment is already up and running in New Orleans and Denver, as well. The plans vary in size, scope, and complexity, but they are rational ways to put parents and students first within a dizzying array of educational choices. In fact, it’s clear that there are more school seats in most large cities than there are children to fill them.

Every parent theoretically has a number of choices, but the reality is that the school “marketplace” is often difficult to understand or navigate. Data are absent or inconsistent from school to school, different deadlines require quick decisions, applications can be hard to acquire or for families to complete, and visiting schools can be very difficult when parents and guardians don’t have access to or control over transportation and scheduling. All of these conspire to limit an individual family’s real choices even when quality school seats go begging.

To me, there are three basic components of choice that must work in unison: quality, visibility, and accessibility. If these are in place and functioning at peak, then a vibrant marketplace can exist and parents will likely be empowered with a number of realistic and attainable options for...

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