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 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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This is not a good start for one of the newest states empowered to start up charter schools. The Associated Press has reported that the newly created Mississippi Charter School Authorizer Board lacks the money and the leadership to do its job. It’s gotten so bad that the state’s charter association has asked the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to contribute seed money to the board.

The worst part is this kind of trouble should have been anticipated. Until this year, Mississippi prohibited start-up charter schools; only low-performing public schools were allowed to seek charter status. But even though the state legislature has since approved the creation of independent charter schools, it budgeted no money for the state board that will authorize them and has demanded that the board’s executive director have a law degree. Mississippi governor Phil Bryant and Republican leaders made a lot of political concessions to get this charter law passed this year (the law allows no virtual schools, and districts with higher grades on the state’s report card can veto charter applications), but this neutering of the state charter authorizer shouldn’t have been one of them.

After twenty-one years of charter schooling, we know what it takes to do authorizing right, and this isn’t it. As a reference, consider what my colleagues Michael Petrilli and Ty Eberhardt wrote on the subject two years ago:

Since the charter movement began, we have learned a great deal about what is required of effective...

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A study out of Britain’s Institute of Education (IOE) has found that children who read for pleasure made more progress in mathematics, vocabulary, and spelling between the ages of ten and sixteen than their peers who rarely read. In fact, the study found that whether or not a child likes to read is a greater predictor of classroom success than parents’ educational levels.

A Chicago Tribune article follows Jailyn Baker, a teenager in Chicago, on her seven-leg, hour-and-a-half-long commute to the Josephinium Academy, her school of choice and one of the few private schools in the city that her family can afford. Her story illustrates not only the lengths to which folks will go to exercise school choice but also a great irony: Jailyn lives closer to Indiana, a state that has one of the “most liberating” school-voucher programs in the land, than she does to Josephinium; were she living in Indiana, she would be eligible for a voucher worth nearly $6,000, which could allow her to attend a private school that she didn’t have to torture herself to get to.

Kudos of the week go to Jeb Bush, who—in what seemed like a moment of frustration—struck back at Common Core critics: “If you’re comfortable with mediocrity, fine.” He followed his comments, made at an appearance in Washington in support of Louisiana’s school-voucher program, by calling opposition “purely political.” Read more here.

A month after publishing two pieces blasting the National Council on...

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Thanks to the tireless work of school-choice advocates and wise policymakers, millions of U.S. children and their parents now have education options that were not available to them a few short years ago. But the choice picture is sorely incomplete. Consider:

  • Nine states do not allow charter schools.
  • Only ten states and the District of Columbia have school-voucher programs, and five of these confine their vouchers to children with disabilities.
  • Just eleven states offer scholarship tax credits for attendance at private schools.
  • Many states still make it difficult or even impossible to take advantage of public school choice.

Meanwhile,

Why hasn’t more progress been made in providing options to children? It’s simple: Most school-choice programs are zero-sum propositions, in which one school or district gains the student and the funding while another loses. And politicians—even Republicans—are loath to take resources from traditional public schools, especially those in the suburbs and small towns that they represent.

In recent years, however, new programs have begun to spring up that allow choice at the more granular level of individual courses rather than through all-or-nothing, enrollment-based, school choice. Rick Hess and Bruno Manno explored this idea in detail in their 2011 book Customized Schooling. Now in a handful of states, children enrolled in a traditional public school can take courses from other public schools, virtual schools, private schools, or even post-secondary institutions....

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Harlem Day is one of the oldest charter schools in New York City—and, historically, one of its most troubled. It has had nine principals in the nine years since its founding in 2001, and fewer than 25 percent of its students could read and do math at grade level. This was a case study for closure, but the school’s founder, Ben Lambert, made news when he proposed something radical to his authorizer, the State University of New York: He would step aside and replace his entire governing board just to keep the school alive and give his students a chance at salvation.

This compelling account comes courtesy of Public Impact, which has held up Harlem Day and a few other similarly positioned charter schools as paragons of what it calls the charter school “restart.” The restart is an alternative to closure—an alternative that Daniela Doyle and Tim Field at Public Impact say in their new report ushers in new leadership at problem-plagued charter schools but still manages to serve the same students.

It’s a good concept to promote but one that’s tough to pull off. The reason why Lambert’s move made headlines is because his act of self-sacrifice is so rare. Bad schools manage to survive often because their leaders and their governing boards won’t let go and someone (an authorizer, a friendly power broker) has accommodated their failure.

Doyle and Field aren’t so Pollyannaish that they don’t see that; they concede that one of the most oft-cited...

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