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.

When we talk about educational choice on these pages, we are mostly speaking of charters, vouchers, digital learning, and the like. But in Fordham’s home state of Ohio, educational choice encompasses several other options, of which many families regularly avail themselves. Two of those “outer-limits” options have been in the news recently.

Opting out

In law, they are called “non-chartered, non-tax-supported” schools—NCNTs. In parlance, they are called “508 schools,” after the part of the Ohio Administrative Code that describes them. In reality, they represent the furthest distance of “schools” from government oversight. Among the “entanglements” with state government: the setting of a minimum length of the school year and school day should be; the reporting of pupil population, withdrawals, and adds; minimum teacher qualifications; health and safety rules; and the requirement that a “regular promotion process” must be in place and followed (although it is clearly up to each school to determine its own process).

NCNT schools are something like homeschooling co-ops but with a structure more closely approximating that of private schools—tuition fees, group classes, social activities, field trips, and even sports. But NCNT schools are truly free to create whatever structures they like—strong religious grounding, classical education models, Montessori methods—as long as no one is concerned about obtaining a diploma backed by the state of Ohio. Luckily, colleges have discretion as to the credentials they’ll accept. To quote the Ohio Department of Education, “Other schools, colleges, universities and employers have discretion over decisions regarding...

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Ohio’s charter-school enrollments have been climbing steadily during the past decade. Currently, approximately 120,000 students in Ohio attend a charter school, compared to 34,000 kids in charters just ten years ago (in the 2002–03 school year).

In recent years, however, e-schools have been the primary driver of charter growth. (E-schools are considered “charter schools” under state law.) Consider Chart 1, which shows the eight-year enrollment trend for students who attend a “start-up” charter school.[1] From 2005–06 to 2012–13, the percentage increase in e-school enrollment (up 99 percent) easily surpasses that of brick-and-mortar charters (up 44 percent). As a result, e-school enrollment has increased as a percentage of overall start-up charter-school enrollments: in 2006, e-schools accounted for 28 percent; in 2013, they accounted for 35 percent. The rise in e-school enrollment has occurred despite a statewide moratorium on new e-schools from 2005 to 2013.

Chart 1: Both e-school and brick-and-mortar charters have grown, with e-schools growing more quickly – Student enrollment in e-school and brick-and-mortar start-up charter schools, 2005–06 to 2012–13

Source: Ohio Department of Education

The explosive expansion of e-schools leaves me with a number of questions. Are e-schools high-quality education options? (The value-added scores of e-schools are abysmal, leaving doubts in my mind about their effectiveness.) Who is regulating, monitoring, managing, and governing these schools? (Try and find either the management team or the board of directors of ECOT on their website.) Why are

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In recent years, pre-Kindergarten has become a rather popular idea among policymakers and the public. The latest cases in point include the Columbus mayor’s announcement of a new $5 million initiative to provide quality pre-K. Meanwhile, just last week, Cleveland-area entities announced a massive $35 million, two-year plan to expand access to quality pre-K. Yet, as Ohio’s policymakers enthusiastically tout pre-K, they should understand that it isn’t necessarily an educational slam dunk. Consider Grover “Russ” Whitehurst’s excellent summary of the research.[1] Whitehurst analyzes thirteen pre-K studies from the 1960s to the present, grading the quality of the research and reporting the impact of the program. Whitehurst begins with a look at two widely cited studies from the 1960s and 1970s, Perry Preschool and Abecedarian, both of which found positive, long-term impacts for participants. So far so good, but Whitehurst reminds us that Perry and Abecedarian studies were evaluations of small single-site programs. (Perry, for example, had just fifty-eight participants.) This limits the ability to infer that large-scale pre-K programs would confer similar benefits. As he moves into studies from recent years, Whitehurst reports less positive findings on large-scale pre-K programs. In his view, the two strongest pre-K studies have been the Head Start and the Tennessee Voluntary Pre-K program evaluations. The Head Start evaluation found no effect of pre-K, while in Tennessee there was evidence of slightly negative effects on child outcomes. To conclude, Whitehurst writes, “[The] best available evidence raises serious doubts...

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New York mayor Bill de Blasio has made clear his aversion toward charter schools, singling out in particular his predecessor’s policy of allowing charter schools to co-locate with the city’s traditional public schools for free. But what impact has charter co-location actually had on New York’s public schools? This timely report from the Manhattan Institute digs in, measuring the academic growth of public school students in grades 3–8 in math and English language arts over five years. When the author compared individual students’ test scores before and after co-location or when the co-locating charter schools expanded (taking up more space in the building), he uncovered no evidence to suggest that co-locating with charter schools or losing space within a building has any significant impact—positive or negative—on public-school students’ test scores. The paper concluded with some advice for policy makers: when space is limited, weigh the costs (for the most part, simply the inconvenience of changing school schedules and moving classrooms) against the potential benefits to the charter-school kids.

SOURCE: Marcus Winters, “The Effect of Co-Locations on Student Achievement in NYC Public Schools,” Civic Report no. 85 (New York: Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, February 2014).

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By now, education observers are aware of New York City mayor Bill de Blasio’s incursion on the Big Apple’s charter sector.

No one should be surprised; this was no ambuscade, no lying in wait. He publicly campaigned against charters. He actually called his predecessor’s policy of allowing charter public schools to share public-school space with district public schools “abhorrent.”

This has been a shame for low-income kids, of course, given NYC’s charters’ superb performance. But it has made for 24-karat media fodder.

Hizzoner has picked a fight with Eva Moskowitz, not only the operator of a network of tremendously successful charters but also one of the toughest pugilists in the city’s notoriously combative political squared-circle. The Democratic mayor is now involved in internecine warfare over charters with the state’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, who publicly declared, “We will save charter schools.

But de Blasio’s camp hasn’t turned tail; they’ve trickily tergiversated. Despite their words and deeds, the mayor’s camp is claiming he’s not really against chartershis narrative got hijacked. He likes charters just fine!

Former governor Mario Cuomo, Andrew’s father, brilliantly said, “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.”

Given the mayor’s attempt at playing both sides, his team might be credited with implying a third part of the equation: “You spin in prevarication.”

Though all of this makes for Broadway-ready pyrotechnics, there is an important and as-of-yet unexplored element of this script....

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The National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) has emerged as one of the nation’s staunchest proponents of charter-school quality. In November 2012, it launched its ambitious One Million Lives campaign, the purpose of which is “to bend the quality curve upward.” Among the key strategies to improve quality, while maintaining growth, is to close as many as a thousand low-performing charter schools and to open two thousand high-performing ones. Under the closure-replication strategy, NACSA calculates that one million additional children will enroll in a high-performing school by 2018. In the Year One update, NACSA reports that the campaign is off to a strong start. The upshot: as a result of proactive authorizing practices, 491 promising, new charter schools have opened, while 206 failing schools closed in 2013. These actions affected roughly 232,000 students. The report dishes other morsels of information regarding progress in strengthening accountability, including changes to state law and the commitment from more authorizers to adhere to NACSA’s essential practices. The charter-school sector’s commitment to quality is impressive; if only that could be said about traditional public schools, too.

SOURCE: National Association of Charter School Authorizers, One Million Lives, Year One (Chicago: Author, 2014).

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Last week President Obama announced a five-year, $200 million charitable initiative called My Brother’s Keeper to help young African American men. The program seeks to address the many disparities in outcomes for black men, including large gaps with white men regarding high-school graduation rates, college enrollment and completion rates, lifetime earnings, longevity, and the likelihood of incarceration. According to The New York Times, “early-childhood development, school readiness, educational opportunity, discipline, parenting, and the criminal justice system” will be the foci of the initiative. The President also ordered his administration to “determine the best methods to improve the odds for young men of color.”

We should be thrilled that our President has acknowledged publicly the persistent challenges that young African American men face in modern day America and, more importantly, has pledged to encourage concrete actions to address those challenges. The first step Mr. Obama should take is to push for more private-school choice through vouchers or scholarship programs. The President’s own U.S. Department of Education has already determined that such programs significantly improve educational attainment for African Americans.

Three evaluations of private-school choice programs have followed enough students for sufficiently long to determine their effects on the rates of high-school graduation, college enrollment, or both. A 2010 evaluation of the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program that I led for the U.S. Department of Education found that students offered...

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As legislative sessions across the country continue to wind down, it's worth keeping tabs on some of the big private-school-choice proposals still under consideration. I've already covered the Mississippi education-savings-account proposal, which has the potential to be only the second such program after Arizona. There are also voucher proposals in Tennessee and Alaska that have been well covered elsewhere and may see passage this year. But one state providing a little bit of a late surprise is New York, where legislators are considering an Education Investment Tax Credit that could mean significant additional funding for public schools and privately run scholarship programs.

The latest version of the bill pending in the Assembly is smartly crafted to provide a little bit for everyone. First, individuals or corporations will be able to donate to eligible organizations in order to claim a portion (up to 75 percent of taxes owed or $1 million per filer, whichever is less) of the up to $300 million in dollar-for-dollar credits. Eligible contributions will be restricted so that they are split evenly between public-school programs and private-school scholarships for students living in households making $300,000 or less. A revised Senate version likely will place the income threshold at $500,000—the same income cutoff as Mayor deBlasio's proposal for tax hikes to fund prekindergarten. Under both versions of the bill, teachers could also receive a credit up to $200 for school supplies.

The proposal is especially interesting, not only because it is in a deep...

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“How did we ever lose our way on vocational education? Why did we put it down? Why did we not understand its value?” – Ohio Governor John Kasich, State of the State, February 24, 2014.

As Ohio’s governor rightly remarks, vocational education and the students who participate in it have been second-class citizens for too long. I know that from my own experience attending a Western Pennsylvania high school during the late 1990s, where—permit me to be blunt—our school’s “vo-tech kids” were generally put down, disparaged, and ostracized by other students.

Don’t just take my word for it, however. Surveys call attention to the negative perception of vocational education (a.k.a., “career-and-technical education” or CTE). A study in 2000 found that the “underlying theme” voiced by those in vocational education was the need to “change the perception that CTE offers an inferior curriculum, appropriate only for those students who cannot meet the demands of a college-preparatory program.” Similarly, research for the Nebraska Department of Education in 2010 concluded, “Substantial proportions of Nebraskans believe that CTE students are not respected as students who take more traditional academic courses.”

Marc Tucker of the National Center on Education and the Economy casts some historical light on the demise of vocational education, particularly as it pertains to urban school systems:

Prior to that decade [the 1970s], most medium and large cities had vocational high schools for the trades, many of which were highly regarded selective institutions. . . . But, in...

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The weeping and gnashing of teeth from parents and community members who may be affected by the closure of seven Columbus City Schools is understandable. No one wants to lose institutions that are dear to the heart.

But I would ask this: Where was the outrage from parents and the community when these schools failed to deliver academic results? Why didn’t 700 people come out to the meetings when our own state department of education rated the schools as under-performing? Where were the protests; where were the posters; where were the demands?

For those who might be interested, here’s the dismal three-year performance record of the seven schools on the chopping block. Maybury is the only school in which the case could be made that it’s worth keeping open on the basis of academics.

Source: Ohio Department of Education Notes: In 2012-13, no school received an overall rating. For 2010-11 and 2011-12, “academic emergency” is equivalent to an “F”; “academic watch” is equivalent to a “D”; “continuous improvement” is equivalent to a “C”; “effective” is equivalent to a “B.” High schools do not receive a value-added rating, hence the N/A.

Look, we’ve heard the stories of urban schools where PTA and community meetings go empty. In fact, I’ve sat through a few of them. The disinterest in the school is pitiful. Meantime, it’s even more baffling to see that when a district announces closures, all the sudden people rally around...

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