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.

According to the newest assessment from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools regarding the charter sector’s share of the public school market, the number of school districts where at least 20 percent of students attend charters has increased about 350 percent since 2005. In thirty-two districts, at least one in five public school students is enrolled in a charter. In New Orleans and Detroit (and very soon, Washington, D.C.), the majority of public school pupils are charter students. The good news is that the top-ten cities in terms of charter market share include some of the nation’s highest-performing charter sectors (New Orleans, D.C., and Indianapolis). The bad news is that some of the worst performers turn up on that list, too (namely, Philadelphia and three districts in Ohio, a state whose laggard charter performance has been well documented by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes and my colleagues at the Fordham Institute). When announcing this growth, NAPCS chief executive Nina Rees protested that nearly one million students are on charter waiting lists. Her lament is justified. But quantity and quality still aren’t matching up the way they should in this growing movement.

SOURCE: National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, A Growing Movement: America’s Largest Charter School Communities, Eighth Annual Edition (Washington, D.C.: National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, December 2013)....

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For a decade, the nonprofit Institute for Innovation in Public Choice (IIPSC) has helped the cities of New York, Boston, Denver, and New Orleans bring order to the Wild West of school choice, using the one-two punch of economic theory and custom software. To match students with seats in public schools—either district or charter—the IIPSC builds algorithms that employ three kinds of data: the schools that families want their kids to attend, the number of available seats in every grade at each school, and each schools’ admissions rules. Newly flush with a $1.2 million grant from the Dell Foundation, the IIPSC plans to expand into Philadelphia, Washington, and possibly Detroit. Hat tip!

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Education released proposed priorities for a new competitive grant program for charter school support organizations, to come from the annual “national activities fund.” These priorities highlight what the Department deems to be the “key policy issues facing charter schools on a national scale,” and they include gaining efficiency through economies of scale, improving accountability, providing quality education to students with disabilities an English language learners, and supporting personalized technology-enabled learning. While these are important policies at the surface level, it is unclear what the long-term implications and unintended consequences may be of focusing grant making solely on the bigger charter entities and whether smaller, unaffiliated charter schools will realize any benefits.

On Wednesday, President Obama delivered a big speech on inequality, in which he brought up...

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A sea of changes in education policy have begun to affect classrooms across Ohio. Schools are implementing the Common Core, the state has overhauled teacher- and principal-evaluation systems, new assessments will undergo field-testing this year, schools are scrambling to comply with the Third-Grade Reading Guarantee and to address the accompanying staffing issues, and the first portion of Ohio’s new statewide accountability system has been phased in with the release of the completely overhauled 2012–13 school and district report cards.

We at Fordham recently analyzed student achievement statewide and in Ohio’s eight largest urban cities in Parsing Performance: Analysis of Ohio’s New School Report Cards. In the interests of transparency and accountability, we reported in our annual sponsorship report how our own portfolio of sponsored schools fared under the new academic performance requirements.

Prior to delving into our results, allow us to refresh your memory on the new system and its implementation timeline. Schools were graded on a set of components for 2012–13 and will be assessed against additional components in 2013–14, still more in 2014–15, and all components when the system is fully implemented in 2015–16. Although schools will be graded on component parts of the report card in 2012–13 and beyond, schools will not receive an overall rating (i.e., the sum of the components) until 2014–15, at which time each building will be assigned an A to F grade for overall performance.

Graph I, below, details the performance of Fordham’s sponsored schools under two key components...

The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice recently released a study that seeks to better understand the decision-making processes of parents who send their children to private schools. The authors hypothesize that if state and local governments empower parents to choose the schools of their choice, a “spontaneous education order”—a state in which parents seek information about schools and in which schools make available the necessary information without public officials’ intentional intervention—will arise. Accountability, they speculate, will take care of itself.

To test this theory, they use survey data from 754 parents whose children received scholarships through the Georgia GOAL Scholarship Program (GOAL). The survey sought to identify the factors involved in parents’ decisions and the types of data that informed those decisions.

GOAL was established in 2008 under Georgia’s Education Expense Credit Program. Under the law, taxpayers may receive a state income tax credit for contributions made to qualified “Student Scholarship Organizations” (SSOs). SSOs use these funds to award private school scholarships to families.

The law places no limits on recipients’ household incomes (i.e., it’s not “means-tested” for low-income families), and in fact the average adjusted gross income of recipient families was $51,923, slightly higher than the state’s 2012 median income. Scholarship recipients are approximately 60 percent white, 25 percent black, 5 percent Hispanic/Latino, and 10 percent unknown/other.

Of the 2,685 families who had at least one child receiving a GOAL scholarship in 2013, only 754 provided complete data (a response rate of 28 percent). Survey respondents were...

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Like the swallows returning to Capistrano or the endless lines at Best Buy on Black Friday, there is an annual gathering in Cincinnati that compels folks to camp out for days on end. They leave most of life behind in pursuit of a single goal: a coveted spot in a magnet school.

The campers are parents of incoming Kindergarten students who are convinced that the desired magnet school is the right place for their children. This year, the tents began popping up at the first school nearly two weeks before the opening of the lottery. The parents should be commended for their commitment and dedication.

But what does this annual ritual really signify?

Does it mean that Cincinnati schools are so bad that families will do anything for a better option? Probably not. These are families trying to attend a handful of high-quality magnet schools. The quality and desirability of these schools is a positive development for Cincinnati Public Schools. With over 15,000 students in district schools that received a D or F rating on their performance-index scores last year, the real question is this: Why there aren’t more schools like these? A long line for scarce seats is not a new development in Cincinnati.

Does it mean that Cincinnati’s lottery system is broken? Probably. A two-week campout in November in Southern Ohio seems more like the set up for a reality-competition show than for quality education outcomes. And while Cincinnati Public Schools neither condones nor discourages the...

Jay Greene wants school-choice supporters to relax the testing mandates in the newest and largest voucher programs in the nation. Specifically, these programs require participating students to take their state’s public school assessment, which Greene likens to adhering to a “state vision of a good education.”

Let’s hope these supporters reject his appeal. It’s taken quite a push to get where we are now: a level of accountability in relatively few private school choice programs that may be partly responsible for their success and their political support. Hitting the reverse button would only halt the current momentum of the choice movement, while removing one of the few quality-control mechanisms in place for these programs.

To be sure, Professor Greene is not the first to raise concerns about the use of state assessments. His argument is by now familiar: Forcing government test mandates on private schools dilutes what makes these schools private and will force all schools to become cookie-cutter copies. What if families want something other than the state vision of a good education “encapsulated in state standards and testing?” Greene writes.

It’s not an unreasonable concern; Mike Petrilli, for instance, once pondered the conflict between public education’s “two p’s”—parents and the public. Allowing parents to access a multitude of choices—and not forcing them into the Procrustean Bed of public school—is one of the reasons those of us at Fordham support this reform.

But how much of a threat are the state tests in terms of...

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It seems the largest battle in education policy today centers on the question of whether or not the Obama administration cheerleading for the Common Core State Standards, a state-led initiative, represents an existential threat to federalism. Serious Common Core supporters concede that the federal government (unwisely) dangled incentives for swift state adoption of the standards, while pointing out that the vast majority of instructional decisions will now, as before, remain with local school boards and educators. On the other hand, serious opponents admit as much but worry that locals will have to make significant changes to meet these higher targets and say it is only a matter of time before we see a proposal for a national curriculum. I, for one, think even casual observation of the current debate over standards shows the possibility of a national curriculum to be so remote as to make it not worth discussing, except to say that if it were proposed, many Common Core supporters (myself included) would strongly oppose it.

The “federal overreach” argument used by Common Core opponents is quite perplexing, not only because some claims are so wildly exaggerated, but also because they all but ignore (and thereby excuse) actual and obvious examples of overreach with much larger potential consequences for federalism. If the Common Core debate is truly just a principled stand for states’ rights, why haven’t we heard a word about the specific requirements on school turnaround or teacher quality within the Race to the Top competition? Where was the conservative backlash against the clear disrespect shown to...

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On Tuesday, November 19, I gave the keynote speech at the American Center for School Choice event tied to the release of the report of its Commission on Faith-based Schools. The following is the text (edited for length) as it was prepared.

Thank you so much for having me here today. I truly am honored to have the chance to talk to such a distinguished group of leaders about a subject that I care about so deeply.

OK, OK, I know that’s how all speakers begin. But I actually do mean it this time. Certainly not when I say it other times—but definitely this time!

During my career I’ve bounced between government service and the nonprofit world, where I spend the bulk of my time researching and writing. And whether I’m wearing my bureaucrat hat or my think-tank hat, I make sure to devote some of my energy to trying to preserve inner-city faith-based schools serving low-income kids.

Be forewarned: This next section is going to come across as gallingly self-serving. I promise it’s only half gallingly self-serving; there’s another purpose for the rest of it.

I met some of you during my time at the White House when I organized the White House Summit on Inner-city Children and Faith-based Schools. As you might remember, we were even able to get the President himself to speak there.

Incidentally, the young woman who introduced the President—in that picture—graduated from Archbishop Carroll and is...

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The D.C. Charter Board recently released its annual ranking of charter schools in the nation’s capital, showing that one-third of the schools it sponsors deserve a top-performing, or Tier 1, status. Five schools attained Tier 1 status for the first time this year, bringing the total number of high flyers to twenty-three among sixty-eight that were ranked (at least four schools dropped from Tier 1 status to Tier 2 this year). Most schools were in the middle, and eight dwelled at the bottom, where they risk getting shut down. Still, hurrah for the progress the Board can claim. And hurrah for D.C. kids, who can enjoy the fruits of this endeavor.

The fourth round of the federal Investing in Innovation (i3) initiative has concluded with twenty-five applicants in the winner’s circle. Seven are validation grants (larger awards for ideas with the strongest evidence base) and eighteen are development grants (smaller awards aimed at supporting up-and-coming ideas). The grantees ranged from teacher-collaboration ideas to ed-tech groups, from proposals creating free Common Core instructional resources for teachers to parental-engagement plans. For a take on a past grantee, the Reading Recovery program, check out this week’s Education Gadfly Show podcast.

On Wednesday, Rep. George Miller and Sen. Tom Harkin introduced legislation in the House and Senate to expand access to pre-K programs for four-year-olds. The bill largely adheres to President Obama’s proposal (states will have to promise to link pre-K data to K–12, provide state-funded Kindergarten, and ensure that early-education teachers have bachelor’s degrees)....

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Seriously?That’s what comes to mind after reading this piece in the Columbus Dispatch, which reports that a third school sponsored by the North Central Ohio Education Service Center (NCESC) has run into difficulties. The school seems to be having problems paying its bills, and the school leader has acknowledged that some staff walked off the job—not to mention that two NCESC-sponsored schools ceased operations in mid-October after State Superintendent Dick Ross stepped in because the schools failed to ensure a safe learning environment and to provide basic services for kids.

Every school encounters a few glitches here and there, especially if it’s new. But failing to pay the staff, teachers walking off the job, and vendors bailing because they aren’t being paid? These are not glitches, nor does this dysfunction seem to be confined to a single occurrence or school. According to the Dispatch, there are now—and it’s only October—three NCESC schools that have had difficulties well beyond your run-of-the-mill start-up issues. The entirety of the alleged situation is disconcerting at best.

For all of the charter schools and sponsors (i.e., authorizers) who are working to do it right, including Fordham, this ongoing circus tarnishes us all.

At the end of the November 5th Dispatch article, my first thought was, “How many more?” Would anyone be surprised if one of the four schools that, according to the Dispatch,...

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