A competitive school choice program that puts families first

Joanne Weiss

Editor’s note: On Wednesday, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the Hoover Institution are hosting a timely event, “A New Federal Push on Private School Choice? Three Options to Consider.” This week we are running guest posts by the event’s panelists, offering their advice for the new Administration and Congress. Below is the second of a two-part series by former Obama Administration official Joanne Weiss. These posts do not necessarily reflect the views of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Competitive programs are particularly good vehicles for empowering those closest to the work to bring forward good ideas that are tailored to the needs and circumstances of particular places. And despite the handful of cities that are working today toward the principles outlined in my previous post, there is still much to be learned about designing successful choice policies—and it’s no secret that what succeeds in one place may be different in key details from what works somewhere else. A policy targeted at creating successful citywide or regional proof-points would significantly contribute to the field’s knowledge and evidence base.1 Competitions, when well designed and executed, can be strong mechanisms for seeding models and advancing learning because:

  • They identify the best. The best ideas come from those closest to the work. And when done right, competitions act as magnets to attract talented people to come together and design novel solutions to worthy problems.
  • They galvanize political will. Because applying is voluntary, only those interested in implementing the policies step up. Thus, applicants typically have the political will to undertake the new initiatives and the public support to carry out the plans.
  • They enroll key stakeholders. When a competition is designed well, the act of applying requires all stakeholders to come together, get aligned, and commit to doing the work—increasing the chances of successful implementation.
  • They spur local accountability. Competitions keep local media and community watchdogs focused on the initiative. Over the long term, these groups continue to hold winners accountable for delivering on their promises.

Who competes?

To create citywide or regional proof-points, key leaders across many elements of the locale should come together to design a school choice program that works for their community. Optimally, applicants will be mayors or county officials working in concert with school system leaders and families in their region, and with the participation and assent of many other stakeholders.

Questions for applicants to address

A competitive design that adheres to the principles described above would ask applicants to think through and respond to requests such as these:

  • Provide an overview of the vision for how you propose to turn your region into a model in which all families benefit from school choice. Explain where you are starting from, where you are headed, and why. Include research and data to support your argument.
  • Describe how you propose to provide multiple strong school options for all participating families. List the schools that are included as part of this proposal: for example, districts, charter schools, and any others that will take part. Include executed participation agreements that articulate each party’s roles and responsibilities. For any schools or types of schools in the city that do not participate, indicate who they are and why they are not included.
  • Describe the policy conditions (enablers and barriers) that currently exist, need to be created, or need to be removed to allow you to execute your vision—and your plan for getting there.
  • Describe how you will provide families with access to school options, such that every interested family has the same chance of getting their children into a school as every other family. Describe the methods you will use for enabling easy and consistent application, fair matching of students to their choices, and flexible transportation to and from school.
  • Describe your plan to keep families and communities informed about school features and performance so they can make good decisions, minimizing the role of marketing and maximizing the role that facts about schools play in families’ decision making.
  • Describe how you will hold all schools responsible for delivering a high-quality education to students, including through school oversight, accountability, and consequences for chronic low performers.
  • Describe the family, community, and political support you have (including binding letters of intent), the barriers you still need to overcome, and your plan for doing so.
  • Describe how you will monitor and evaluate effectiveness and communicate the lessons you learn over time, such that the field learns from your experiences and your own implementation continues to improve.
  • Describe how you will use the funds you are awarded to realize your vision, and explain how you will maintain and sustain the choice program once funds are gone.

Other considerations for policymakers

When designing a competition, there are other considerations that policymakers (or other funders) need to keep in mind:

  • Size matters. Grant awards need to be large enough to encourage applications and to fund high-quality implementation, but they must enable a bridge to ongoing sustainability—not create a funding cliff.
  • Scoring matters. Through point allocation and scoring rubrics, competition managers signal their priorities and provide additional guidance about what is expected, both of applicants and reviewers.
  • Evidence matters. Writing applications and making big promises is easy. Implementing is hard. Applicants should be required to provide evidence (such as executed memoranda of understanding) that all participants are fully signed up to do the required work—on an agreed-upon timetable, to a defined level of quality, for a specified budget—and that governing bodies and decision-making protocols are established, clear, and agreeable. In addition, relevant data track records of past accomplishments can increase confidence in future success.
  • Preconditions matter. Sometimes, no matter how well intentioned an applicant is, unless policies, regulations, or laws change, the plan cannot be implemented. Competition designers need to think through what conditions must be in place before applying if plans are to be executed, and how to enable that to happen. This is a political as much as a policy decision, and consequences should be carefully considered.

Joanne Weiss is an independent consultant to organizations on education programs, technologies, and policy. For the past fifteen years, she has focused on driving systems-level education change through high-impact grantmaking, investing, and policymaking. From 2009–2013 she served in the Obama Administration as chief of staff to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and director of the federal Race to the Top program. Prior to that, she was a partner at NewSchools Venture Fund and served on the boards of a number of charter management organizations.

Notes:

1 Such a competition could be mounted by any level of government or by a sizable private funder, but it assumes that new funds are made available. Were it to be undertaken by the federal government, existing funds from major programs such as Title I cannot be repurposed without harming poor students and the schools that serve them. And existing federal choice programs, such as the Charter Schools Program, focus largely on building the supply of high-quality charter schools—and so remain critical to the field in their present form.