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, I participated in two events that challenged my ideas on one of urban education’s trickiest and most combustible issues.

Those who know only a caricatured version of my views might be surprised by both the subject and those who’ve caused my ruminations. But I wrestled with this issue in my book, and while I don’t always see eye-to-eye with my interlocutors of last week, they have valuable insights into this issue.

I’m writing about it here both because it’s important and because, frankly, I need help figuring out the right answer.

The question is, “How do we protect the ‘public’ in public education?”

On Wednesday, I participated in this discussion at the AFT’s Shanker Institute. At a conference the following day, I moderated a conversation between urban school leaders, and similar issues kept bubbling up.

There are many ways to define a school’s “public-ness” (Rick Hess expertly unbundles the issues here). But the aspect I’m most concerned about relates to governance, whether the public—the adults in the geographic area served by the system of schools—is able to shape the contours of the system.

The very specific issue I’m interested in is how this can happen absent locally elected school boards.

Per state constitutions, ensuring a system of public education is the responsibility of state governments. They, however, have created local school districts and boards, thereby delegating K–12 authority...

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As most states’ legislative sessions wind down for the year, it’s not too early to ask how school choice has been faring, particularly when compared with the remarkable gains around the country during the past several years.

Here’s a rundown, in case you haven’t been paying attention:

  • Since 2011, two states have enacted charter-school laws for the first time (Washington and Maine) and many others have improved their laws (a dozen did so just last year).
  • During that time, twenty private-school choice programs were created in fifteen states, along with a number of others that were expanded or otherwise reformed.
  • A handful of states created new “course choice” programs.
  • In 2011, Arizona enacted the nation’s first education savings account (ESA) program.

Why all of that activity? Much of it can be traced to the Republicans’ wave election in 2010, which made the state-level political environment considerably friendlier to charter schools, vouchers, and other forms of parental choice. Republicans gained nearly 700 legislative seats that year, giving them control over more seats than at any time since 1928. They also gained a net of six governors’ offices. Then they maintained most of this edge in the 2012 election, yielding back only about 150 seats.

Nobody knows what the 2014 elections will bring politically, but the early months of the year have seen less impressive progress educationally, at least in terms of education choice. There have been some key missed opportunities. And many legislators...

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We are excited to share that the nationally renowned Building Excellent Schools (BES) Fellowship program is in Columbus this week to visit and study the United Schools Network (USN). USN is comprised of Columbus Collegiate Academy – Main, and Columbus Collegiate Academy – West. Both schools have been recognized for producing outstanding academic results in schools where a majority of students are economically disadvantaged (92 percent at Main, 100 percent at West).

Building Excellent Schools’ core work is to raise the quality of urban charter schools to ensure that all students have the opportunity to receive the education they deserve. Their highly selective fellowship has seeded more than 60 schools in 20 cities serving 20,000 students nationwide. Over the next two years, those numbers will grow to over 130 campuses in 30 cities.

Individuals selected as fellows focus on closing the achievement gap in some of the highest need communities across the country. Fellows spend a year studying how to design, found, and lead a charter school. During that year, fellows master school design and leadership, operations, governance, and external relations. Fellows also visit over 30 high-performing schools around the country, engage in a month-long residency in an excellent school, and interact with subject-area experts.

On-site study, such as that taking place at the Columbus Collegiate schools this week, is one of the lynchpins of the practice-based BES Fellowship. Columbus Collegiate Academy – Main, the flagship school, was founded in 2008 by 2006 BES Fellow Andrew Boy. In...

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We are excited to share that the nationally renowned Building Excellent Schools (BES) Fellowship program is in Columbus this week to visit and study the United Schools Network (USN). USN is comprised of Columbus Collegiate Academy – Main, and Columbus Collegiate Academy – West. Both schools have been recognized for producing outstanding academic results in schools where a majority of students are economically disadvantaged (92 percent at Main, 100 percent at West).

Building Excellent Schools’ core work is to raise the quality of urban charter schools to ensure that all students have the opportunity to receive the education they deserve. Their highly selective fellowship has seeded more than 60 schools in 20 cities serving 20,000 students nationwide. Over the next two years, those numbers will grow to over 130 campuses in 30 cities.

Individuals selected as fellows focus on closing the achievement gap in some of the highest need communities across the country. Fellows spend a year studying how to design, found, and lead a charter school. During that year, fellows master school design and leadership, operations, governance, and external relations. Fellows also visit over 30 high-performing schools around the country, engage in a month-long residency in an excellent school, and interact with subject-area experts.

On-site study, such as that taking place at the Columbus Collegiate schools this week, is one of the lynchpins of the practice-based BES Fellowship. Columbus Collegiate Academy – Main, the flagship school, was founded in 2008 by 2006 BES Fellow Andrew Boy. In...

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Every year, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers draws on survey data from half of the nation’s charter-school authorizers to assess the quality of their practices, outlining a set of twelve essential practices and scoring authorizers based on their adherence to them. In this sixth edition, the results are mixed. Most practices are adopted by at least 80 percent of authorizers, but rates of adoption have decreased in seven practices since 2012. According to the report’s authors, an influx of small, new authorizing agencies negatively diluted the numbers. Smaller authorizers (which tend to be local education agencies) scored lower on average than their larger counterparts. Some of the practices outlined by NASCA—such as having designated staff work on authorizing functions—inherently favor larger entities that can devote more resources to the job. However, this report also highlights the relative lack of explicit criteria for charter renewal, which any authorizer can adopt. Size matters, but small scale is no excuse for poor oversight.

SOURCE: National Association of Charter School Authorizers, The State of Charter School Authorizers 2013 (Chicago, IL: National Association of Charter School Authorizers, May 2014).

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For families seeking more than what their child’s assigned school offers, “school choice” has long been a cherished solution. And it’s made strong headway on the U.S. education-policy front. Millions of girls and boys now enjoy access to a range of educational options thanks to innovative school-choice policies.

Sometimes, however, changing schools isn’t the optimal solution—perhaps because no better options are available within a reasonable commute, because the state doesn’t have a viable choice policy, or because the student’s present school is satisfactory in all but a couple of areas. Enter “course choice,” a strategy for widening the education options available to youngsters. As a new white paper from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute argues, it has the potential to dramatically expand access to high-quality courses for many more children from many more backgrounds and locales than we have thus far managed.

Rather than asking kids in need of a better shake to change homes, forsake their friends, or take long bus rides, course choice enables them to learn from the best teachers in the state or nation while staying in their neighborhood schools. It grants them access to an array of course offerings that no one school can realistically gather under its roof, while offering a new revenue opportunity for schools and additional income for public-school teachers. How many Sal Khans are in our schools today just waiting for an opportunity to expand their...

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Last week was National Charter School Week and, to celebrate, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the “Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act.” This was an exciting occasion for us Washington-based policy wonks, starved as we are for any legislative action on education. But it also offered a window into the thinking of charter opponents, especially the teacher unions.

Note in particular this amendment offered by Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee:

The State entity will ensure that charter schools and local educational agencies serving charter schools post on their websites materials with respect to charter school student recruitment, student orientation, enrollment criteria, student discipline policies, behavior codes, and parent contract requirements, including any financial obligations (such as fees for tutoring or extracurricular activity).

The amendment failed 179–220, on a mostly party-line vote. Randi Weingarten expressed disappointment in an AFT press release:

There are still major gaps in the bill, such as on enrollment criteria that traditional public schools always follow. Several representatives, including Sheila Jackson Lee, Kathy Castor and Gwen Moore, pushed for additional measures to level the playing field based on their own or their constituents' charter school experiences. But for some reason, these amendments were rejected—presumably because some prefer to give preferential treatment to charter schools. We want preferential treatment for all our children.

What’s this all about? Charter opponents are trying to make hay with allegations that some charter schools are “cream-skimming,” either by discouraging certain kids from enrolling...

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Last week, the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools (OAPCS) announced that Darlene Chambers would take the helm of the organization as its new president and chief executive officer. Darlene takes over for Bill Sims, whose steady leadership guided the group for its first seven years. Leadership changes at any organization present challenges and opportunities, but in this case those are one and the same: the need to improve the quality of Ohio’s charter-school sector.

At the beginning of this year, we stated the obvious: that Ohio’s charter sector has too many low performers. We went on to suggest that it’s incumbent upon charter supporters to lead the effort to improve quality. Darlene’s background uniquely positions her to steer a course toward quality. As the executive director of a leading charter sponsor, the Ohio Council of Community Schools, Darlene understands more than most the difficult and important decisions that sponsors face when deciding whether to renew a charter contract or to close a school. She also has learned firsthand (as has Fordham) that nonrenewal or closure is hard but is sometimes the right decision for kids.

In addition to her role at OCCS, Chambers is also the outgoing president of the Ohio Association of Charter School Authorizers. This collection of Buckeye sponsors has been an advocate for higher-quality charter authorizing. Given the importance placed on the role of effective authorizing at the state and national level, this gives Darlene a unique...

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Last week, the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools (OAPCS) announced that Darlene Chambers would take the helm of the organization as its new president and chief executive officer. Darlene takes over for Bill Sims, whose steady leadership guided the group for its first seven years. Leadership changes at any organization present challenges and opportunities, but in this case those are one and the same: the need to improve the quality of Ohio’s charter-school sector.

At the beginning of this year, we stated the obvious: that Ohio’s charter sector has too many low performers. We went on to suggest that it’s incumbent upon charter supporters to lead the effort to improve quality. Darlene’s background uniquely positions her to steer a course toward quality. As the executive director of a leading charter sponsor, the Ohio Council of Community Schools, Darlene understands more than most the difficult and important decisions that sponsors face when deciding whether to renew a charter contract or to close a school. She also has learned firsthand (as has Fordham) that nonrenewal or closure is hard but is sometimes the right decision for kids.

In addition to her role at OCCS, Chambers is also the outgoing president of the Ohio Association of Charter School Authorizers. This collection of Buckeye sponsors has been an advocate for higher-quality charter authorizing. Given the importance placed on the role of effective authorizing at the state and national level, this gives Darlene a unique...

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Last week was a big week for charter schools. A Presidential Proclamation designated it “National Charter Schools Week.” At the same time, the United States House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed (360–45) bipartisan legislation to strengthen the federal Charter Schools Program and prioritize the replication and expansion of quality charter schools. These actions reflect the growing bipartisan support enjoyed by charter schools as well as the increased focus on quality over quantity.

Ohio’s charter growth has mirrored that of the nation, although with some high-profile school closures in the Buckeye State, the bipartisan support has been a little less than forthcoming. While we are ardent charter supporters, we’ve been obliged to call out bad behavior and epic failures that could have been prevented.

But in the spirit of National Charter Schools Week, we opted to celebrate part of our own portfolio of charter schools across Ohio; in addition to being a gadfly, we also sponsor charter schools. These schools—laboratories of innovation and independence—are making an important difference for the communities they serve.

To name but three:

We urge you to check out the whole series here....

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