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.

This new report, published in the August 2013 issue of Science magazine, looks at Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRISs)—attempting to determine if these pre-K evaluation systems actually lead to improved educational outcomes for students. This is important as QRISs are proliferating rapidly across the country. Ohio has a QRIS system in place (“Step Up to Quality”), managed by the Office of Job and Family Services, which gives pre-K school providers a rating of one to five stars. The rating system is based primarily on “input measures” such as staff to child ratios, pre-K staff qualifications and professional development, and other factors.

But do highly-rated QRIS preschools relate to better learning outcomes at the end of pre-school? The study raises concerns. The researchers used data sets from two previous studies: one conducted by the National Center for Early Development and Learning and the other from the State-Wide Early Education Programs (SWEEP) study. Overall, the data set for this study included 2,419 children in 673 public pre-K programs in 11 states including Ohio. These studies were chosen for their similarity to the data collected by current QRISs, which are being used in nearly half the states in the U.S.

The study finds that an omitted variable—a measure of the quality of teacher-student interactions called CLASS (Classroom Assessment Scoring System)—is the strongest predictor of children’s learning. This data was studied previously but is not currently included in any QRISs, a major finding and a major flaw in QRISs....

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Today’s whiz kids are those most apt to become tomorrow’s leaders. Our ablest students will hatch ideas for products that satisfy the needs and wants of future generations. They’ll be the engineers, investors, teachers, lawyers, and civic leaders that form the backbone of a strong 21st century economy.

Columbus’ public school system, however, by and large neglects its gifted students. This jeopardizes the city and region’s future prosperity and the diversity of its workforce.

First, the neglect of gifted youngsters isn’t such a problem in suburban communities. In fact, parents there are more likely to be accused of “pushing” their kids too hard not too little. Many upper-middle-class parents make sure their children play, for example, violin (for Pete’s sake, first chair), star in a sport (if not three), join the Key Club (why not become president), and of course do well in school (straight A’s in at least three AP courses).

It is not the well-heeled students who win spelling bees and ace their standardized exams with which I’m concerned. On the whole, suburban parents—and schools when coaxed by parents—give their girls and boys ample opportunity to excel academically.

But what happens to talented youngsters who don’t have a pushy parent around, or when their parents don’t have the wherewithal to push very hard? Indeed, what about high-potential students who are born and raised in Columbus’ poorer urban communities? Communities where a child is more likely to grow up in a single-parent home and where household incomes are low?...

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It’s not a radical statement to say that private school choice has been a success. Every serious study into the efficacy of vouchers and tax-credit scholarships has shown either positive or neutral benefits for students. Virtually no significant research has found that they have academically harmed children.

That makes the popular narrative about school choice all the more frustrating. It says vouchers have done little good because the students who take public money to private schools don’t outperform their peers left behind in school districts. The mainstream press has advanced this story line, asserting that the research literature on vouchers is “mixed.” The latest contribution to this comes from Politico, which concluded in a 1,600-word story this weekend that, as taxpayers prepare to direct $1 billion annually toward private school tuition, “there’s little evidence that the investment yields academic gains.”

Such a declaration, however, distorts the findings from multiple gold-standard and peer-reviewed studies, which are decidedly not mixed—if one’s definition of mixed means a combination of good and bad results. In that sense, the verdict on charter schools is mixed, but the judgment on vouchers is not.

The empirical record on vouchers reports either positive gains for scholarship recipients or no difference between voucher students and their public school peers, using a variety of student outcomes as an indicator (test scores, high school graduation, and college-going rates) and usually for a variety of student subgroups. Stephanie Simon of Politico correctly points to snapshots of voucher test results in...

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The University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) has emerged as the leading voice of reason on the vexing overlap between charter school policy and special education policy. In this new report, CRPE turned to Manhattan Institute scholar Marcus Winters to examine data from New York’s charter and traditional public schools to help explain why it is that charters enroll fewer special-education (SpEd) students. Just as CRPE previously argued, diagnosing and addressing this gap (around 4 percent, according to earlier estimates) requires nuance—and New York State lawmakers made a serious mistake by rushing enrollment quotas into law three years ago. Winters examined students in Kindergarten through third grade from the 2008–09 to 2011–12 academic years, targeting twenty-five charter elementary schools that participated in enrollment lotteries in order to compare lottery winners and losers. He emerged with four key findings. First, the primary driver of the SpEd gap is the type of student who applies to attend a charter in Kindergarten: Those with autism and speech impairments were less likely to apply to charter schools in the first place. And though this study cannot tell us why, it tells us that parents of SpEd students switch schools a lot until they find the right fit for their child. Second, charters are less likely to indicate that students need SpEd services, and they’re more likely to declassify students who are “special needs”; specifically, students in charters are more likely to have their Individualized Education Program (IEP) classification removed by Year...

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The Louisiana Scholarship Program (LSP), which gives public dollars to low-income students to escape low-performing schools for private schools of their choosing, has come under fire from the Department of Justice for “imped[ing] the desegregation processes” of two dozen school districts. Not so, says this new study in Education Next. In fact, the University of Arkansas authors find that the transfers resulting from the voucher program “overwhelmingly improve integration in the public schools students leave (the sending schools), bringing the racial composition of the schools closer to that of the broader communities in which they are located.” The government will eventually reopen, but here’s hoping that the DOJ lawsuit goes away permanently.

Reviewing the latest misguided barnburner by former Fordham trustee (and current rabble-rouser) Diane Ravitch, the Manhattan Institute’s Sol Stern has penned a scathing but fair rebuke. He points out that her newfound “educational romanticism”—characterized by her suggestion that all children read poetry and be freed from the demands of knowledge-rich curricula—does not just contradict her life’s work but is also terribly short-sighted, especially for low-income children: “If they’re not taught lots of content knowledge in the early grades,” Stern writes, “they’re doomed to fall further behind. They will never be able to read Walden or understand poetry.” He labels her bottomless blog a “propaganda hub for the national anti-corporate-reform coalition” with “all the subtlety of an Occupy Wall Street poster”; he faults her book for its “pie-in-the-sky” solutions;...

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The Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) has emerged as the leading voice of reason on the gap that persists between charter schools and school districts when it comes to educating students with special needs. Today, CRPE has released a new report that challenges the assertion that charters are “pushing” away special-education students and questions laws that ultimately force charters to enroll more students with learning disabilities.

CRPE asked Manhattan Institute scholar Marcus Winters to examine data from the New York City Department of Education and from New York City charter schools to help explain why there are fewer special-education students enrolled at charters. New York charters are important because the state legislature three years ago passed a law that required charters to enroll a higher share of special-education children—or at least mirror the special-education enrollments at district schools.

Just as CRPE before found more nuance in the special-education gap between charters and school districts, Winters unearthed facts that should prompt New York lawmakers to reconsider their rash decision to rush enrollment quotas into law.

Specifically, Winters found the following:

  • Parents of Kindergarten-age students with disabilities—especially those with autism and speech impairments—are less likely to apply to charter schools in the first place. This is the primary driver of the gap, Winter says. Perhaps these families see better opportunities for their young, learning-disabled children in school districts. Regardless, Winters concludes aptly, “It is difficult to hold [charter schools] accountable for the free choice of individuals deciding
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Terry Ryan
President

Guest columnist Terry Ryan is Fordham's former vice-president for Ohio policy and programs and is now the president of the Idaho Charter School Network.

The education historian Diane Ravitch is barnstorming the country promoting her new book Reign of Error. Ravitch is a fantastic story teller who selectively uses data and anecdotes to make a sweeping indictment of education reform in America. There is certainly some harsh truth in what she writes (e.g. education consultants have made a financial killing on education reform efforts in recent years with Race to the Top being a prime example).

But, her sweeping generalizations don’t hold up when it comes to charter schools. Ravitch argues that “what’s wrong with charter schools is that they originally were supposed to be created to collaborate with public schools and help them solve problems.” But, she claims, “they have now been taken over by the idea of competition, they have become part of the movement to turn education into a consumer product rather than a social and public responsibility.”

In working with charter schools in Ohio, and now Idaho, I have met dozens of educators over the years who started their careers as teachers in district schools or as administrators in district offices. These educators turned to the charter school model only after coming to the realization that if they wanted to better serve their kids they needed the freedom and flexibility that comes with a charter school. They simply couldn’t do what their students needed because...

The conclusion seems so obvious: In a unanimous decision this week, Georgia’s Supreme Court said that the Atlanta school system cannot withhold funds from the charter schools it authorizes to help pay down an old pension debt that’s been building for decades.

But despite the good news for Atlanta’s charter schools, the fact remains that a major school district has shown how hostile it can be toward the charters it sponsors. Last year, Atlanta schools Superintendent Erroll Davis took $3 million from the revenues of eleven city charter schools so that charters could share the burden of an aging pension obligation that has grown to $550 million.

When lower courts told him he couldn’t do that (no charter employee benefits from this pension plan) Davis took his case to the state’s highest court and told his school board that it shouldn’t approve any more charters unless the Supreme Court gave him permission to seize the money.

Should we be surprised? Probably not. Charters have taken an increasing share of the public school market in Atlanta (charter enrollment grew 29 percent between 2011 and 2012, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools), whereas school-district enrollment has been essentially flat at around 49,000 students during that time. Davis failed to convince the Supreme Court of his argument, but his fight tells us that districts that authorize charter schools sometimes have incentives to acquire revenues bound for charter schools or turn charters away altogether.

So...

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Recent blogs by William Phillis of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy of School Funding (posted on Diane Ravitch’s website) and Join the Future highlight the academic woes of some of Ohio’s charter schools. Phillis writes: “The Department of Education’s ranking of schools and districts reveals that 83 out of the bottom 84 schools are charter schools.” Join the Future exclaims “Out of the bottom 200 districts, just 21 are traditional public schools, the remaining 179 are charter schools!”

Both authors make spurious comparisons that ought to be dismissed. Both make the mistake of comparing the performance index scores of charter schools to school districts. To compare charters to school districts fails to account for the disproportionate number of disadvantaged students that charters serve. In 2011-12, Ohio charter schools on average enrolled 79 percent economically disadvantaged (ED) and 61 percent African American students.[1] Meanwhile, the statewide average was 46 percent ED and 16 percent African American. So long as the “achievement gaps” persist between race and income groups, is it fair to compare charter school performance with all statewide school districts? And do statistics about the worst-performing charter schools, in comparison with school districts, tell us anything beyond the fact that many charters struggle to narrow achievement gaps?

Taking a building-level view, rather than comparing charter schools to school districts, is a better comparison of charter and district performance. For, at a building-level, we gain a clearer picture of how charter schools...

Lamar Alexander

Dear Attorney General Holder:

I request that the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Civil Rights immediately withdraw the motion it filed last month in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, in which it asked the court to bar the state of Louisiana from awarding vouchers that would enable low-income students in many areas of the state to attend private schools.  The motion, filed on August 22, 2013, alleges that the Louisiana Scholarship Program impedes federal court orders to desegregate 34 school districts with a history of legally segregated schooling.

While I acknowledge the Department of Justice’s responsibility to monitor compliance with federal desegregation orders, I believe that this motion constitutes unwarranted interference with an innovative state effort to expand educational opportunity for all students. 

The motion is misguided for two reasons.  First, any impact the voucher program has had on desegregation has been negligible, as is clear from the only two examples offered to the court.  In one school serving more than 700 students, 30 percent of whom were black, the departure of six black students with vouchers reduced the share of black students by less than one percentage point.  In the other, the departure of six white students had a similarly minute effect.  In both cases, the departure of students with vouchers caused their previous schools to drift slightly away from the racial composition of the district as a whole, the level of integration court orders use as a target.  Yet the motion alleges,...

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