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.

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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I liked Preston Smith from the very start.

We talked about sports and music, teased each other like high school friends, and bonded over stories of our young kids and smart, loving wives. We also shared a hardscrabble past and a set of small shoulder chips that produced in both of us a forward-leaning posture and an abiding passion for education reform.

But there’s so much more to Preston, the CEO and co-founder of Rocketship Education, maybe the hottest CMO in America. He made it out of a tough neighborhood, attended and excelled at a top-flight university, joined Teach For America, won awards for his extraordinary teaching, served as a founding principal in his early twenties, and then started the first Rocketship school—turning both into the highest performing schools in San Jose, CA.

He worked his way up through the organization, and when CEO John Danner resigned in early 2013, Preston, at only 33, took the organization’s helm and was charged with overseeing both its existing eight schools and audacious national growth plans.

I was lucky enough to be part of a two-year professional development program with Preston. I’ve been witness to everything from his thoughtful interpretation and explanation of complex texts, to his hilarious participation in late-night parlor games, to his fired-up commitment to organizing low-income families. And despite his laundry list of strengths, he shows great modesty (my recollection in the...

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Earlier this month, Fordham released a brand-new report, What Parents Want, which looks at parent priorities and preferences in K–12 schools. We found that parents’ “must-haves” do not vary greatly, and that parents are more alike than they are different. (Chief among parents’ priorities: schools that have provide a strong core curriculum in reading and math and that emphasize science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education.) But differences among parents also emerged, in six market-research “niches,” where parents prioritized individual school attributes or student goals that other parents viewed as less important.

So we know what all parents—and what parent “niches”—want in our schools. But do we have the schools that meet parents’ needs? Does Ohio’s supply of schools meet the demands of picky parents?

Not perfectly, of course. By all accounts, school, student, and parent don’t always mesh like a hand in glove. But, there is also evidence that public schools are increasingly designing curriculum and hiring staff to meet the demands of specific parental segments, while at the same time, holding to high academic standards. Looking across Ohio, we put together a short list of district and charter schools that, in some way or another, appear to cater these niches. (By no means is this an all-inclusive list; we surely left off many schools that exemplify the market niches.)

The following bullets describe parental niches that were identified in the survey, along with a few schools—all high schools—that we think meet the various niche markets. (See our...

Eric Holder's Justice Department recently announced it would not target states that had chosen to legalize marijuana due to its "limited prosecutorial resources." The Obama presidency has shown us that "insufficient funds" is an exceedingly unlikely reason for inaction. Instead, this appears to be yet another example of the Administration’s willingness to pick and choose which laws passed by Congress it will enforce. I suppose some will take the DOJ at its word but, nevertheless, it's interesting to note where the nation's chief law enforcement officials are spending our precious tax dollars.

If liberty were the Administration's priority, you sure wouldn't know it by their school-choice policies. Instead of reducing violent crime and keeping what it still classifies—rightly or wrongly—as a dangerous drug off the streets, government lawyers are working feverishly to overturn the will of both parents and their state elected officials by denying educational options to potentially thousands of Louisiana children.

Louisiana’s 2012 school-voucher law allows low-income families with children in failing schools to choose a higher-quality option. The DOJ, relying on decades-old desegregation orders in thirty-four districts, is working to deny parental choice in the name of keeping schools integrated. This is especially puzzling given that studies have shown school choice often improves diversity. Some outstanding recent analysis on Jay Greene’s blog has found the government's argument in this regard to be splitting hairs at best.

Parents have not only a right but also an obligation to take advantage of the resources at their disposal to provide the best...

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Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller recently published an opinion that should be good news for school-choice advocates who favor customized education for low-income students. He wrote this week that students opting for the state’s voucher program should also be allowed to receive special-education services, if eligible, at their local public school.

Photo from the Associated Press

This undoubtedly would anger two camps of school-choice opponents: 1) those who believe that private schools accepting voucher-bearing students must offer the same special-education services found at traditional public schools and 2) those who believe that once students leave the public school system, they give up everything it has to offer.

Of course, most choice opponents occupy both camps, and that goes for Indiana Superintendent Glenda Ritz, who this summer asked the attorney general a loaded question: Must a private school participating in the state’s voucher program offer special-education services to eligible students who qualify for both a voucher and a new special-education grant the state legislature approved this year?

Zoeller said no, writing in his opinion that private schools might refuse voucher students altogether if they have to administer special-education services when they lack the capacity to do so. The legislature would have wanted to place more decision-making power in the hands of parents, even if that meant deciding to get a private education via school vouchers while still receiving special-education services at a public school (the public school, in this...

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The Washington Post (and many others) roundly decried the Department of Justice’s petition to disallow Louisiana from awarding vouchers to students in public schools under federal desegregation orders. Surely it’s folly to block students (mainly black and all poor) from escaping failing schools to which they would otherwise be condemned—and it’s outrageous to claim that this is good for civil rights. As 90 percent of the kids benefiting from Louisiana’s voucher program are African American, Gadfly cannot help but suspect political motives. We join the chorus: Shame on the Department of Justice for standing between disadvantaged children and their education dreams.

Massachusetts, with the nation’s highest-performing school system, models the power of comprehensive standards-based reform. As noted by the New York Times, the Bay State’s standards—like the Common Core—refrain from prescribing curriculum and pedagogy, meaning that teachers decide how to get their pupils across the finish line. There’s far more to the Massachusetts story, of course, including a higher bar, more money, charter schools, individual student-level accountability and tougher requirements to enter teaching. But it’s a story worth telling and retelling.

As the time draws closer for Congress to focus on reauthorizing the federal Institute of Education Sciences, the New York Times did a decent job of profiling the difference that it has made, particularly its emphasis on randomized studies—i.e. research based on clinical trials that test, for example, whether particular education...

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Common Core
 

When I’m asked if I support the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS), I give an emphatic “yes.” They constitute the first multi-state plan to give substance and coherence to what is taught in the public schools. They encourage the systematic development of knowledge in K–5. They break the craven silence about the critical importance of specific content in the early grades. They offer an example (the human body) of how knowledge ought to be built systematically across grades. They state,

By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas. Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.

That principle of building coherent, cumulative content animates the most effective school systems in the world, and for good reason: The systematic development of student knowledge from the earliest grades in history, literature, science, and the arts is essential to high verbal ability—which in turn is the key to social mobility and college readiness.

The words quoted above don’t define the specific historical, scientific, and other knowledge that is required for mature literacy. (If they did, no state would have adopted the CCSS, because specific content remains a local—or teacher—prerogative in...

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It has always puzzled me why the Rev. H.K. Matthews hasn’t drawn more attention for his support for private school choice. His name may not carry the weight of King, Randolph, or Rustin, but it’s doubtful that the civil-rights movement would have quickened in Florida at the pace it did without the sacrifices Matthews made.

Chief among those sacrifices was Matthews’ freedom: When he was president of the Pensacola Council of Ministers in the 1960s, he led sit-ins at segregated lunch counters throughout Northwest Florida that led to his arrest—thirty-five times. He was gassed and beaten by police on the march with Martin Luther King, Jr., from Selma to Montgomery, and he was blacklisted from jobs after protesting police brutality in the Florida panhandle. More recently, Matthews helped to lead protesters who bemoaned the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial.

So when Matthews calls school choice an extension of the civil rights movement, that assertion ought to at least merit a few high-profile headlines.

At least the Birmingham News recognized the allure of Matthews’s position. This week, the News published commentary from Matthews supporting the new Alabama tax-credit-scholarship program and reprimanding the Southern Poverty Law Center for its attempt to sue the program out of existence.

“I’m sure the Southern Poverty Law Center does many good things for low-income families—but they have it wrong on this program,” said Matthews, who presently works as a minister in Brewton, Alabama. “They say: if you can’t help all low-income...

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