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.

Last week, the Fordham Institute released a report with recommendations on accountability in publicly funded private-school-choice programs. The furor it has incited among school-choice advocates around the country (here, here, and here) is palpable but not unexpected. Their concerns are many, but in a Flypaper piece, Mike Petrilli responds that the consequences of bad schools—bad schools of all types—are too real to ignore.

In Ohio, home to five private-school-choice programs (more voucher programs than any other state), the recommendations have not caused an uproar, perhaps because many of the report’s recommendations are already in law within Buckeye borders.

1.) Require that all students who receive a voucher (or tax-credit scholarship) participate in state assessments.

While this is probably the most controversial recommendation, four out of five of Ohio’s programs (all but the Autism Scholarship) already mandate this by law. Ohio’s largest private voucher program, the EdChoice Scholarship, has required participants to take the state assessment from the time it was first proposed. Credit for including this provision goes to the foresight of key players at the time: Governor Bob Taft, House Speaker Jon Husted, and Senate President Bill Harris. With more than 31,000 students now using vouchers in Ohio and the numbers steadily growing every year, there’s no sign that it has had a negative impact on participation by either private schools or students or that it has warped the schools’ autonomy or mission.

2.) Mandate public disclosure of those assessment results,...

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This week, we at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute released a “toolkit” for policymakers working to create or expand private-school-choice programs. In it, we argue that students receiving publicly funded scholarships or vouchers should take state assessments and that the results should be reported publicly. Private schools that consistently fail to improve student achievement in math and reading should become ineligible for public subsidies.

Predictably, some of our friends in the school-choice movement—especially those of a more libertarian persuasion—responded with a resounding “Thanks but no thanks.” Jason Bedrick of the Cato Institute acknowledged that our proposal is “well intentioned” but finds it “unpersuasive” and “likely to do [more] harm than good.” Greg Forster, writing on Jay Greene’s blog, calls our proposal a “straddle.” Robert Enlow, president of the Friedman Foundation, argues that public oversight of (publicly funded) private schools would be “prone to political decisions and special interests.” And even Matt Ladner, our comrade-in-arms in the Common Core fight, thinks it’s risky to subject private schools to state accountability policies, given that the latter are such a mess.

None of these anxieties surprised us; in fact, we mention most of them in our toolkit. We understand why some worry that

  • Private schools could feel pressure to conform to state standards, reducing or eliminating the educational diversity that makes them attractive (and effective) in the first place;
  • Achievement-based accountability policies might kick low-performing schools out of choice programs that parents have selected for rational and
  • ...
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As voucher and tax-credit-scholarship programs have expand­ed in recent years, another promising development has been the incorporation into such programs of provisions that hold participating private schools to account for their students’ performance. The newest and largest voucher programs, such as those in Louisiana and Indiana, have gone beyond the familiar “let-parents-vote-with-their-feet-and-judge-the-school-by-whether-anyone-wants-to-attend-it” arguments and are doing more to assure parents and taxpayers that private schools accepting scholarship-bearing stu­dents will meet certain expectations regarding how much those youngsters actually learn.

Yet outcomes-based accountability in private-school-choice pro­grams is hardly a settled matter. Many proponents of such programs dis­agree on how to subject private schools to testing requirements or about how external standards will affect whatever is unique about pri­vate schools and why they’re worth choosing in the first place. Yes, there are risks associated with drawing private schools into public accountability systems, but empirical evidence shows that such downsides can be mitigated if policymakers are smart about how they design results-based accountability in these choice programs.

We’ve assembled this toolkit to help with that design. The Fordham Institute supports private-school choice, done right. That means that policymakers should provide an array of high-quality choices—and hold providers accountable to parents and taxpayers in ways that are reasonable.

Our key recommendations

We’ve written model statutory language aimed at strengthening outcomes-based accountability in private-school choice. Readers will find it at the end of the toolkit. But there are three objectives that form the core of our proposal. We recommend that states

  • Require that all students
  • ...
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There were many important releases and developments this week—invaluable new SIG information from IES, Race to the Top audits, new Brookings “choice index”—and I couldn’t keep up! Those subjects and others will get fuller treatments from me next week. But until then, here are some worthwhile things to read over the weekend.

There has been much talk about the 50-year anniversary of The War on Poverty. Here’s the best stuff I’ve seen: This Gerson column smartly points out the federal government’s successes and failures (and though this superb Brooks column on evolving conservative policy thinking isn’t about The War on Poverty per se, it should be read in conjunction with Gerson’s). This short blurb by Checker Finn is terrific; the first-person narrative is compelling, and for history buffs and those fascinated by the intersection of politics and policy, it offers something special. This very good piece by my old high school friend (now at AEI) Josh Good echoes family-related arguments made by Finn’s mentor a half century ago.

If you care at all about Common Core, this Stephanie Simon article about conservative backlash is an absolute must read. There are several different strands in the piece worth thinking about (including the CCSS-as-a-stepping-stone strategy), but these two sentences speak volumes: “Still, (Common Core) supporters have struggled to counter the critics. They have had trouble even understanding the contours of the smoldering opposition.” As I told TNTP (see fifth paragraph),...

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A new survey from the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice delivers a thorough look at how the public views an array of school-choice issues. The results could surprise even some seasoned policymakers and wonks. After a useful literature review summarizing decades of opinion research on school choice, the author digs into the results of his nationally representative survey: First, respondents were asked whether they support or oppose various forms of school choice, and he found greater public enthusiasm for tax credits and savings accounts than for vouchers. Second, respondents were asked a series of questions to determine whether arguments favoring school choice were more persuasive if they invoked ideals of freedom, competition, or equality. Freedom prevailed.  Third, as is often the case, respondents felt that reducing class sizes would be quite effective in improving our education system relative to the other ideas offered. Among the reform ideas tested, support for “vouchers is in the middle of the pack, with smaller class sizes, technology, and accountability perceived as more efficacious and reducing teachers’ unions’ influence, merit pay, and longer school days as less efficacious.” This all would seem to indicate the need for school-choice supporters to go big with their proposals to reach as many kids as possible. Logically, support may dwindle to the extent the public feels a given policy does not affect them. In addition, policies should be designed to ensure options are broad-based, diverse, high quality,...

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Earlier this week, AFT president Randi Weingarten came out against the use of value-added measures in teacher evaluations, citing recent VAM shortcomings in D.C. and Pittsburgh and launching the catchy slogan, “VAM is a sham.” VAM certainly is not perfect. But as Dara Zeehandelaar reminds us in this week’s Education Gadfly Show, teachers decades ago were concerned about being capriciously fired by principals who didn’t like them, which in turn led to the movement for a more structured and quantifiable teacher-evaluation system. Does Randi want to go back to favoritism? Or simply no accountability at all?

In a fascinating exposé of the Common Core opposition movement, Politico’s Stephanie Simon describes how a sophisticated group of strategists took a grassroots campaign, mainly populated by “a handful of angry moms,” and is milking it for political gain. With everyone’s questionable motivations out in the open, Gadfly would like to see the debate return to whether the standards are right for kids.

In a speech at the Brookings Institution, Eric Cantor named school choice as the best hope for the poor to escape cyclical poverty. He took special aim at New York City’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, for planning a moratorium on charter school co-locations in the Big Apple, arguing that this could “devastate the growth of education opportunity in such a competitive real estate market.” Cantor went on to chastise President Obama for (again) refusing to fund the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, a successful initiative that...

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We’ve passed the time for standing by and patiently hoping that Ohio’s lowest-performing charter schools will improve on their own. Or that the authorizers of such charters will solve this problem on their own. As a strong supporter of charter schools, my New Year’s resolution is to seize the promise of change and resolutely champion the effort to strengthen the quality of the charter sector across the Buckeye State.

I also know that undertaking such an effort sans allies won’t likely yield much change. But timing is everything—and now is the right time for all of Ohio’s charter advocates to take up the fight for quality schools.

The problem

Charters have been operating in Ohio for well over a decade, and their performance can be most accurately described as mixed. We’ve been blessed with some resounding successes, such as the Breakthrough Network in Cleveland, Columbus Preparatory Academy, and Columbus Collegiate Academy. These schools, and hundreds other like them around the country, highlight the great potential of charter schools to change the educational trajectory of at-risk students. Yet too many other charter schools in Ohio (and elsewhere) have struggled mightily, as documented by a series of newspaper stories and editorials. In Fordham’s own recent review of Ohio charter performance, we found the urban schools in this sector overall performing at the same low levels as district schools. That just doesn’t cut it. That doesn’t do the state’s neediest kids nearly enough good.

The challenges in...

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Readers of this blog have come to expect news from around the country, analysis, cogent commentary, and best-practice policy recommendations. All of that has been in large part due to the efforts of Adam Emerson. Sadly for us, Adam has moved on to become the Florida Department of Education’s Director of Charter Schools. We want to congratulate Adam on his new position. We also want to thank him for his insight and leadership on parental-choice issues for Fordham and for getting Choice Words off the ground.

But as they say, the show must go on. We are extremely excited to be taking over the reins of what we’ll call “Choice Words 2.0.” We will continue to provide readers with insight and news, and we will bring our own penchant for data, analysis, deep dives, and a variety of lenses through which to look at all aspects of parental choice.

Please let us know what you want to see us cover and share with us your own insights on topics as we cover them. For those wanting to know a little more about us, we’ve described below the background and experiences that we’ll bring to this work.

Chad and Michael: Who We Are

Michael Brickman is national policy director at Fordham, where he is already a regular contributor to the Flypaper blog and other publications. He served in...

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The sleepy issue of gifted education is poised to become a front-burner issue in 2014. The State Board of Education will soon rewrite Ohio’s operating standards, the controversial rules on how schools identify and serve gifted students. The state will release a second year of value-added data for gifted students, which indicate a school’s effect on these students’ learning gains. Columbus City Schools recently moved to seek approval from the state that would allow five of its high schools to adopt selective-admissions policies, based in part on gifted status. Finally, the time may be ripe for policymakers to create a statewide selective-admissions school for gifted students, as Illinois and Mississippi have done.

As gifted-education policies garner more attention, policymakers may want to know what data are available on gifted education in Ohio and what the data say (hint: they’re perplexing). Below are three points on Ohio’s gifted-education data.

1.) Gifted services data appear to be inconsistently reported by schools.

Ohio collects and reports two key data elements regarding gifted students: First, the state reports the number of students who are identified as gifted. Second, it reports the number of identified students who receive gifted services. The enrollment statistics for both gifted identification and services are reported at the school and district level. Schools are not required by law to serve their gifted students, only to identify them. Administrative code requires schools to report these data and submit an annual report, and it also requires an audit...

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The time for standing by and hoping that Ohio’s lowest-performing charter schools will improve on their own is over. As a strong supporter of charter schools, my resolution this year is to seize the promise of change that accompanies a new year and resolutely champion the effort to improve the quality of the charter sector.

While I am committed to raising the performance of our state’s charter schools, I also know that undertaking such an effort sans allies likely leads to failure. But timing is everything—and luckily, I believe that now is the right time for all of Ohio’s charter advocates to take up the fight for quality charter schools.

The problem

Charter schools have been operating in Ohio for well over a decade, and their performance can be most accurately described as mixed. There have been some resounding successes, such as the Breakthrough Network in Cleveland, Columbus Preparatory Academy, and Columbus Collegiate Academy. These schools, and dozens other like them, highlight the great potential of charter schools to change the educational trajectory of our most at-risk students. Yet there are other charter schools that have struggled mightily, as documented by a series of newspaper stories and editorials. In our most recent review of Ohio charter schools’ performance, we found that urban charters performed at the same low levels as district schools—which simply isn’t good enough.

The challenges in Ohio’s charter sector have garnered national attention, as well. The Center for Education Reform aptly...

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