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.

Every year, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers draws on survey data from half of the nation’s charter-school authorizers to assess the quality of their practices, outlining a set of twelve essential practices and scoring authorizers based on their adherence to them. In this sixth edition, the results are mixed. Most practices are adopted by at least 80 percent of authorizers, but rates of adoption have decreased in seven practices since 2012. According to the report’s authors, an influx of small, new authorizing agencies negatively diluted the numbers. Smaller authorizers (which tend to be local education agencies) scored lower on average than their larger counterparts. Some of the practices outlined by NASCA—such as having designated staff work on authorizing functions—inherently favor larger entities that can devote more resources to the job. However, this report also highlights the relative lack of explicit criteria for charter renewal, which any authorizer can adopt. Size matters, but small scale is no excuse for poor oversight.

SOURCE: National Association of Charter School Authorizers, The State of Charter School Authorizers 2013 (Chicago, IL: National Association of Charter School Authorizers, May 2014).

For families seeking more than what their child’s assigned school offers, “school choice” has long been a cherished solution. And it’s made strong headway on the U.S. education-policy front. Millions of girls and boys now enjoy access to a range of educational options thanks to innovative school-choice policies.

Sometimes, however, changing schools isn’t the optimal solution—perhaps because no better options are available within a reasonable commute, because the state doesn’t have a viable choice policy, or because the student’s present school is satisfactory in all but a couple of areas. Enter “course choice,” a strategy for widening the education options available to youngsters. As a new white paper from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute argues, it has the potential to dramatically expand access to high-quality courses for many more children from many more backgrounds and locales than we have thus far managed.

Rather than asking kids in need of a better shake to change homes, forsake their friends, or take long bus rides, course choice enables them to learn from the best teachers in the state or nation while staying in their neighborhood schools. It grants them access to an array of course offerings that no one school can realistically gather under its roof, while offering a new revenue opportunity for schools and additional income for public-school teachers. How many Sal Khans are in our schools today just waiting for an opportunity to expand their...

Last week was National Charter School Week and, to celebrate, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the “Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act.” This was an exciting occasion for us Washington-based policy wonks, starved as we are for any legislative action on education. But it also offered a window into the thinking of charter opponents, especially the teacher unions.

Note in particular this amendment offered by Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee:

The State entity will ensure that charter schools and local educational agencies serving charter schools post on their websites materials with respect to charter school student recruitment, student orientation, enrollment criteria, student discipline policies, behavior codes, and parent contract requirements, including any financial obligations (such as fees for tutoring or extracurricular activity).

The amendment failed 179–220, on a mostly party-line vote. Randi Weingarten expressed disappointment in an AFT press release:

There are still major gaps in the bill, such as on enrollment criteria that traditional public schools always follow. Several representatives, including Sheila Jackson Lee, Kathy Castor and Gwen Moore, pushed for additional measures to level the playing field based on their own or their constituents' charter school experiences. But for some reason, these amendments were rejected—presumably because some prefer to give preferential treatment to charter schools. We want preferential treatment for all our children.

What’s this all about? Charter opponents are trying to make hay with allegations that some charter schools are “cream-skimming,” either by discouraging certain kids from enrolling...

Last week, the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools (OAPCS) announced that Darlene Chambers would take the helm of the organization as its new president and chief executive officer. Darlene takes over for Bill Sims, whose steady leadership guided the group for its first seven years. Leadership changes at any organization present challenges and opportunities, but in this case those are one and the same: the need to improve the quality of Ohio’s charter-school sector.

At the beginning of this year, we stated the obvious: that Ohio’s charter sector has too many low performers. We went on to suggest that it’s incumbent upon charter supporters to lead the effort to improve quality. Darlene’s background uniquely positions her to steer a course toward quality. As the executive director of a leading charter sponsor, the Ohio Council of Community Schools, Darlene understands more than most the difficult and important decisions that sponsors face when deciding whether to renew a charter contract or to close a school. She also has learned firsthand (as has Fordham) that nonrenewal or closure is hard but is sometimes the right decision for kids.

In addition to her role at OCCS, Chambers is also the outgoing president of the Ohio Association of Charter School Authorizers. This collection of Buckeye sponsors has been an advocate for higher-quality charter authorizing. Given the importance placed on the role of effective authorizing at the state and national level, this gives Darlene a unique...

Last week, the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools (OAPCS) announced that Darlene Chambers would take the helm of the organization as its new president and chief executive officer. Darlene takes over for Bill Sims, whose steady leadership guided the group for its first seven years. Leadership changes at any organization present challenges and opportunities, but in this case those are one and the same: the need to improve the quality of Ohio’s charter-school sector.

At the beginning of this year, we stated the obvious: that Ohio’s charter sector has too many low performers. We went on to suggest that it’s incumbent upon charter supporters to lead the effort to improve quality. Darlene’s background uniquely positions her to steer a course toward quality. As the executive director of a leading charter sponsor, the Ohio Council of Community Schools, Darlene understands more than most the difficult and important decisions that sponsors face when deciding whether to renew a charter contract or to close a school. She also has learned firsthand (as has Fordham) that nonrenewal or closure is hard but is sometimes the right decision for kids.

In addition to her role at OCCS, Chambers is also the outgoing president of the Ohio Association of Charter School Authorizers. This collection of Buckeye sponsors has been an advocate for higher-quality charter authorizing. Given the importance placed on the role of effective authorizing at the state and national level, this gives Darlene a unique...

Last week was a big week for charter schools. A Presidential Proclamation designated it “National Charter Schools Week.” At the same time, the United States House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed (360–45) bipartisan legislation to strengthen the federal Charter Schools Program and prioritize the replication and expansion of quality charter schools. These actions reflect the growing bipartisan support enjoyed by charter schools as well as the increased focus on quality over quantity.

Ohio’s charter growth has mirrored that of the nation, although with some high-profile school closures in the Buckeye State, the bipartisan support has been a little less than forthcoming. While we are ardent charter supporters, we’ve been obliged to call out bad behavior and epic failures that could have been prevented.

But in the spirit of National Charter Schools Week, we opted to celebrate part of our own portfolio of charter schools across Ohio; in addition to being a gadfly, we also sponsor charter schools. These schools—laboratories of innovation and independence—are making an important difference for the communities they serve.

To name but three:

We urge you to check out the whole series here....

CJ Szafir

Last week, the Wisconsin Reporter reported that the United States Department of Justice is still conducting an “ongoing investigation” into whether Wisconsin’s private-school choice program discriminates against children with disabilities and, as a result, violates federal disability law.

In 2011, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a complaint with the Justice Department accusing the Wisconsin school-choice program—as well as two private schools in the program—of discriminating against children with disabilities. In April 2013, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department sent a letter and legal memo to the state of Wisconsin accusing the school-choice program of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). They concluded that unless Wisconsin drastically changes its choice program, the United States will take legal action.

Among its numerous demands, the Justice Department wants private choice schools to be forced to adjust their programming to accommodate all children with disabilities, so long as the accommodation does not “fundamentally alter” the school (an extremely onerous legal standard). Federal disability law, as traditionally interpreted by the U.S. Department of Education, applies a different, less exacting standard to private schools in the choice program. Private schools must only make “minor adjustments” to accommodate students with disabilities. Given that private schools do not receive the same government funding for special education as public schools and may wish to take distinctive approaches to students with behavioral problems, this is perfectly appropriate.

If the Justice Department gets its way, Wisconsin’s school-choice program...

“Quiet dedication” is the most apt description of the staff and administration of United Schools Network, a group of three (soon to be four) charter schools in Columbus. Dedication to hard work and excellence; dedication to innovation and achievement. And that applies to the adults just as much as it does to the students.

What is now Columbus Collegiate Academy – Main began operation in August 2008 with 57 students in rented space in a church building. Hardly ideal circumstances for fostering a revolution in education, but that inaugural class outperformed every other Columbus middle school (district and charter) in math that year.

CCA’s early success was a harbinger of things to come. Led by Andrew Boy (a prestigious Building Excellent Schools fellow) and his team, the school turned that one initial class of students into a network of schools that is strong and growing. As it has grown, it has maintained its dedication to underserved Columbus neighborhoods and through its success has garnered the support and respect of community leaders and business professionals.

CCA and the United School Network’s recognition and awards include:

A second school – Columbus Collegiate Academy—West – began in...

Mr. Tim Carey leads a class as the STEM teacher for DECA Prep

DECA Prep is a second-year public charter school in Dayton, Ohio, currently serving students in grades K–3 and 6. A grade will be added each year until the school serves grades K–6. It has an open, first-come, first-served enrollment process. Its early results have been impressive: after one year of operations, 97 percent of its third grades are reading at or above grade level.

Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) experiences are essential components of DECA Prep’s education curriculum. Its faculty utilizes a continuum of labs and experiments to maximize the relationships between math and science teaching. In class every day, teachers emphasize vocabulary building, informational text, and the use of graphics in observation and lab activities to ease the understanding of complex STEM concepts. In addition, students have access to a science lab classroom.

This commitment to innovation and excellence has not gone unnoticed. The school itself was created with help from a Race to the Top award to its sister school, the Dayton Early College Academy (DECA) . And DECA Prep itself was part of a forward-thinking consortium that won a Straight A Fund Innovation grant from the Ohio Department of Education in 2014.

During a recent site visit, we watched as a second graders transitioned from their home classroom to...

Village Preparatory School: Woodland Hills Campus (VPWH) is located in the Kinsman-Woodland Hills area of Cleveland and serves about 300 students in grades K–3. VPWH is a part of the incredibly successful Breakthrough Schools network. Even with its early successes, recent events are pointing VPWH and Breakthrough Schools toward an even brighter future.

First, VPWH has hired Fran Trujillo as the head of school. Fran joined VPWH at the end of 2013, having recently led a pre-K–8 grade charter school in New Orleans. Fran has over thirty years of experience as an educator and over twenty years of experience as a head of school. Drawing from her vast experience, Fran embraces the importance of partnerships in learning. Fran passionately shares the Breakthrough philosophy that scholars grow and learn when their families and the school develop close partnerships.

In addition, the high-performing Breakthrough Network is undertaking an ambitious expansion, known as the “20/20 Plan.”  The plan calls for Breakthrough to open more new schools to bring its network to twenty schools serving over 7,000 students by 2020. The bold plan has plenty of support from various parties, such as the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD), the office of Mayor Frank Jackson, and the Cleveland Transformation Alliance. It also has support from a collection of talented and accomplished members of the community through its Friends of Breakthrough group.

Fordham recently profiled the signs of promise emerging from the important work...

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