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.

The Wall Street Journal dubbed 2011 “The Year of School Choice” after more than a dozen states enacted school-choice legislation that spring. The seeds planted three years ago are now sprouting all over the country in the form of a record student enrollment in publicly funded private-school choice programs. This growth is captured brilliantly in a new publication from the Alliance for School Choice—School Choice Yearbook 2013–14: Hope. Action. Results.

Through its compilation of data and use of graphs, the yearbook shows that the number of students participating in private-school choice programs during the 2013–14 school year is an increase of sixty thousand students—25 percent—from the prior year. This is the single biggest one-year increase in the history of private-school choice programs and brings the total number of participants to more than 308,000 students in eighteen states and the District of Columbia.

While the record number of participating students is the headline grabber in the yearbook, it’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the content. The yearbook, in its interactive digital version, expertly intermixes compelling personal stories with research, a history of the choice movement, detailed information on every private-school choice program, and charts and graphs comparing programs across states.

The colorful and attractive presentation of the yearbook may lead you to believe that it is data lite, but that would be a mistake. While it provides the information in a format simple enough for novices, it also serves as a great resource for the...

Higher-quality products justify greater investments. Full stop. Unfortunately, when it comes to charter schools, states almost universally reject this logic. A new study out of the University of Arkansas examines the per-pupil funding of charter schools (which outperform traditional public schools, nationally) in the thirty states and D.C. that have substantial charter-school populations and found that charter schools, on average, received a whopping $3,814 per pupil less than traditional public districts in 2011—a 28.4 percent disparity. This means that the average charter school, which enrolls 400 students, receives about $1.5 million less per year than a district school of the same size. Just one state, Tennessee, provided greater per-pupil funding to charter schools (15 bucks more per pupil). Moreover, researchers found that this huge disparity has increased by 55 percent in the last eight years, even as charter-school performance has improved. So whence comes the disparity? It turns out that the major culprit is local government funding: district schools receive an average of $5,230 from local government sources, while charter schools average only $1,780. Local governments are stacking the deck against charters, even though charters do a better job of educating local students. It’s not hard to understand why; charter schools don’t have taxing authority for operational expenses or capital costs, and few school districts have chosen to share their bounty. Local policymakers—mayors, we’re looking at you—might want to reconsider that policy.

Meagan Batdorff, et al., Charter School Funding: Inequality Expands (Fayetteville, AR: Department of Education...

In 2013, there were a shocking number of charter-school failures across Fordham’s home state of Ohio, including seventeen in Columbus alone—most of them first-year startups. In response, the Ohio Department of Education required additional paperwork from six authorizers (often referred to as sponsors) looking to start new schools in the 2014–15 school year. They subjected those sponsors to an additional level of scrutiny with regard to their vetting processes, hoping to zero in on weak structures and poor advance planning before startup funds were released and students began attending the schools.

Last Friday, the department took an unprecedented step and issued a stern warning to three authorizers that they will be “shut down” if they proceeded with plans to open six new community schools due to a number of deficiencies in that paperwork. The deficiencies identified had one thing in common: connections or similarities to other charters that had ceased operation voluntarily or had been shut down.

It’s a shame that this step was necessary, but the recent track record of Ohio’s authorizers and the recent findings both suggest there was a need for additional scrutiny. We applaud this bold step and commend State Superintendent Richard Ross and his team for swift and decisive action.

Innovation Ohio’s broadside on charter schools—and, by extension, the parents who select them and the children who attend them—is outrageous. The report is not necessarily flawed because of their critique of charters, per se, but because of the Swiss-cheese analysis that supposedly bolsters its conclusions. The author of this report makes two analytical faux pas, and each are discussed in turn.

First, the report’s suggestion that most charter students land in a lower-performing school, relative to the district-run school they came from, is bunk because of the absence of analysis at the student level. When Community Research Partners, a Columbus-based research organization, analyzed student data from the Ohio Department of Education in a project supported by Fordham and ten other organizations, its analysts discovered that the majority of charter students transferred to a charter rated the same or better than the district school they came from. Of the charter students in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, and Toledo—locations with relatively large concentrations of charters—39 percent went to a higher-rated charter school and 26 percent went to a charter school rated the same as the district school they had previously attended. (The students’ transfer data were taken from October 2009 to May 2011; at that time, the state issued school buildings an overall rating.) In the meantime, if we wanted to conduct an empirical evaluation of Ohio’s charter-school effectiveness relative to district schools, the richest analysis outside of a randomized experiment would be a student-to-student comparison, using achievement...

In 2013, there were a shocking number of charter-school failures across Ohio, including seventeen in Columbus—most of them first-year startups. In response, the Ohio Department of Education required additional paperwork from six authorizers (often referred to as sponsors) looking to start new schools in the 2014–15 school year, hoping to zero in on weak structures and poor advance planning before startup funds were released and students began attending the schools. Last Friday, the department took an unprecedented step and issued a stern warning to three authorizers that they will be “shut down” if they proceed with plans to open six new community schools. The deficiencies identified had one similarity: connections or similarities to other charters that had ceased operation voluntarily or had been shut down. It’s a shame that this step was necessary, but the recent track record of Ohio’s authorizers suggests there was a need for additional scrutiny. We applaud this bold step and commend State Superintendent Richard Ross and his team for swift and decisive action.

The Philanthropy Roundtable recently released an exceptional publication produced by an exceptional author.

Even though it’s meant to be straightforward guide for donors interested in charter schooling, were I teaching a course on K–12 policy and reform, it would be an assigned reading. Throughout From Promising to Proven, author Karl Zinsmeister provides thorough, trenchant analysis of this remarkable sector of public education. At its best, it serves as a fitting, even moving, encomium to the vision and work of the civically minded social entrepreneurs who’ve brought it to life.

This short book works masterfully on three levels.

On the surface, it is exactly what the doctor ordered if you’re a charter-intrigued philanthropist. It explains chartering practice and policy and describes the activities of the field’s leading organizations.

A cursory tour of the guidebook will leave the reader wiser about the distinctive characteristics of charter schools (autonomous, accountable, choice-based), its innovations (longer days and years, new approaches to staffing), and key strengths (increasing parental engagement, empowering educators).

The reader will also become familiar with the most important nonprofits in this space. These include direct-service providers (e.g., Building Excellent Schools, the Mind Trust, Charter School Partners), human-capital organizations (e.g., Relay, Sposato, the Ryan Fellowship), advocacy groups (e.g., charter associations, BAEO, 50CAN, Stand for Children), and foundations and intermediaries (e.g., the Walton Family Foundation, Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, Choose to Succeed, New Schools for New Orleans).

The guidebook also offers an extensive treatment of the sector’s most challenging policy issues,...

For millions of Americans, yesterday was tax day. One of the major uses of those tax dollars is K-12 public education; in fact, Ohio spends approximately $20 billion per year on its public schools. Those funds are generated through state income and sales taxes, local property taxes, and to a small extent, federal taxes.

On a per-pupil basis, that amount equals an outlay of $13,000 per child. Chart 1 shows that spending has risen from $10,682 to $13,063 from 2000 to 2011—an increase of 22 percent—after adjusting for inflation. The chart also shows that Ohio’s per-pupil expenditures are slightly above the national average, and that the state’s spending trend has generally mirrored the national average.

Despite the murmurs of inadequacy from a few interest groups, the fact of the matter is that Ohioans generously fund its public schools and the students who attend them. Given this, the state’s public schools need to be good stewards of those tax dollars by demonstrating that tax payers’ hard-earned dollars are working to lift student achievement.

Chart 1: Ohio’s per-pupil (K-12) spending on the rise and above the national average – expenditures per pupil, 1999-00 to 2010-11

Source: U.S. Department of Education Note: There were no data reported for 2000-01. Expenditures exclude debt service (both principal and interest payments), Title I expenditures, and a few other expenditure categories or sources of revenue (e.g., textbook revenues, tuition payments). The inflation adjustment is to...

Today, New Schools for New Orleans (NSNO) announced that longtime CEO Neerav Kingsland will transition out of the organization this summer.

NSNO is one of my favorite organizations in this business, and Neerav is one of my very favorite people. I’m excited for him and his successors—Maggie Runyan-Shefa and Michael Stone will jointly head NSNO—but, selfishly, I’m even more excited for our field.

After eight years of helping make New Orleans the most exciting American city for K–12 education, Neerav is going to focus on bringing NOLA-style reform to other cities. The potential of seeing the urban school system of the future take off in additional locations is thrilling, and Neerav has the brains and experience to get it done.

In case you don’t know much about NSNO, here’s the story in brief. It was founded by Sarah Usdin in April 2006 (the storms hit in 2005), and it initially focused on educator recruitment and charter incubation. Its first cohort of incubated schools started in 2008; more recently, it shifted to investing in CMOs.

NSNO won a federal i3 grant in 2010 and in 2012 began co-managing a $25 million grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. It has played a central role in a number of human-capital efforts, such as TeachNOLA, MATCH teacher coaching, the Center for Transformative Teacher Training, and Relay GSE.

In short, NSNO is in the business of growing high-quality seats (its schools...

For two decades, path-breaking philanthropies have propelled the growth of charter schools. Today, more than 2.5 million American children attend a charter school, and research has shown that, done well, charters can produce impressive academic results. This guidebook from the Philanthropy Roundtable provides five key principles to help donors wanting to join the charter movement. First, philanthropists should focus on quality. At first blush, this might seem obvious, but the charter-school universe contains both fine and feeble schools—and sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between them. To ensure a return on investment, donors can work with “harbormaster” groups, which steer them toward promising entrepreneurs and proven charter models. Second, funders should back strong accountability and transparency measures, particularly via effective charter school authorizing. Third, philanthropists can support the flow of great teachers and leaders into the charter-school sector from national programs such as Teach For America and TNTP, as well as homegrown teacher- and principal-training programs. Fourth, philanthropy can encourage charter-friendly policies. In some states, the regulatory environment obstructs the growth of a healthy charter sector. Yet changing policy can be brutal, and philanthropic support can aid those who fight the good fight. Fifth, donors can strengthen the day-to-day operations of charter schools. This includes support for school facilities, oftentimes a barrier to growth. The charter movement has provided thousands of high-quality school options for children who would have otherwise had few good choices. With philanthropists’ steadfast support, a brighter future for America’s public schools is at hand.

SOURCE: Karl...

For two decades now, education reformers have promoted a two-track strategy for improving our schools. The first track is standards-based: Set clear, high expectations in core academic subjects; test students regularly to see which schools and students are clearing the bar; and hold schools (and perhaps also educators and pupils) to account for the results.

The second reform track is school choice: Allow parents to select among a wide array of education providers, encouraging innovation along the way.

We have argued for years that these two tracks are interdependent — even codependent. Let us explain:

Standards-based reform got underway in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in part as a reaction to A Nation at Risk, the 1983 report by President Reagan’s Commission on Excellence in Education. This reform track offered what Lamar Alexander called a “horse trade”: more autonomy for schools in return for stronger academic results. Previous waves of reform had focused on inputs, intentions, and regulation: boost the credentials and pay of teachers; increase course requirements for high-school graduation; mandate lower class sizes; etc. When that yielded paltry success, policymakers flipped the equation: less regulation but more focus on outcomes.

That only works, however, when the desired outcomes are clear. That’s the role of academic standards, which, if well crafted, provide guidance to teachers, parents, textbook writers, and test designers about what students are expected to know and be...

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