Choice Words

Education reformers might be tempted to think they can claim victory in Michigan because voters overwhelmingly rejected a push from the teacher unions and others to engrave collective bargaining in the state constitution. Surely, the unions overreached here, but they won elsewhere on Election Day in the Wolverine State.

Education reform in Michigan suffered a crucial setback on Tuesday.

Or, more specifically, in Detroit, Highland Park, and Muskegon Heights—all of them school districts that have become educational wastelands and where the state had installed emergency managers to take control and (more importantly) to tear up union contracts to get the job done. In Highland Park and Muskegon Heights, that meant converting the school districts into charter-school districts. In Detroit, it meant keeping power out of the hands of a school board that one newspaper columnist said was “sauced on power and staggering with incompetence.”

This week, 53 percent of the state’s voters repealed the emergency-manager law, a victory for public-employee unions (teachers included, of course) that had spent the summer gathering signatures to put the question on the ballot. And that may unravel the boldest measures undertaken by these managers.

Detroit’s emergency chief, Roy Roberts, technically maintains...

Charter school supporters can claim victory in at least one high-profile ballot initiative (Georgia) and perhaps one other (Washington) but each state has a different story to tell—and lessons to teach.

In what may arguably be defined as a landslide, 59 percent of Georgia voters empowered the state to create an independent commission to authorize charter schools. But that margin of victory doesn’t even tell the whole story.

Consider Gwinnett County, the state’s largest school district, which has allowed only three charter schools within its boundaries and which filed the original lawsuit that ultimately killed Georgia’s previous independent authorizer (hence the constitutional amendment). Gwinnett superintendent Alvin Wilbanks once said that the question before voters would only empower the state to “privatize, defund, and dismantle public education.” But 63 percent of the county’s voters disagreed with him and said yes to the amendment.

While Georgia can claim a landslide, charter advocates in the Evergreen State may be getting by with a squeaker.

The state’s largest counties followed suit, including Fulton County (where 66 percent of voters said yes) and DeKalb County (64 percent). This highlights the arrogance of Wilbanks and other district superintendents, who warned that the amendment would only diminish...

The Milwaukee voucher program remains one of the most tightly-regulated school choice programs of its kind in the nation, and it deserves better than the sloppy conclusions of Diane Ravitch. In a blog post earlier this week, Ravitch noted—correctly—that tougher standards applied to the Wisconsin state test went badly for all Milwaukee students, especially voucher recipients (just 10 percent of whom were proficient in reading, compared to 15 percent of their district peers). But then she reports that legislation expanding the Milwaukee choice program to Racine absolved private schools of the requirement that they administer the state tests to their voucher-bearing students. “Therefore,” she writes, “their proficiency rate will not be known or reported.”

Wisconsin has made a lot of progress in holding its voucher program more accountable.

This is absolutely untrue. For the past few years, students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program have had to take the Wisconsin Knowledge Concepts Examination (WKCE), which is the same test administered to all public school students. When the Wisconsin legislature expanded the voucher program to Racine last year, nothing changed this requirement. In fact, test results for private schools in Racine and Milwaukee, as well as for public schools throughout...

It may be tempting for legislators to point to the scandalous payments made to an Orlando charter school principal as a reason to tighten regulations governing all charters. In the last week, we’ve learned that the principal of the now-closed NorthStar High Charter in Orlando not only received a $519,000 contractual payout from her board, her compensation exceeded the amount the school had spent on classroom instruction. (NorthStar closed before the Orange County School Board could shut it down for poor academic performance.)

Are school boards are doing enough to provide oversight of the charters in their portfolios?

But now might be a better time to set aside legislative energy and ask whether school boards are doing enough to provide oversight of the charters in their portfolios (as in many states, only school districts can authorize charter schools in Florida).

It may seem hard to hold the Orange County School Board accountable in this case. According to one official at the Florida Department of Education, the last couple of financial reports that NorthStar High sent to the school district showed that the principal earned about $73,000 a year. But her actual pay was much more. Last week, the...

On Election Day, Georgia voters will get to decide whether their state can authorize and oversee charter schools, a power that rests almost exclusively with locally elected school boards. Of course, school districts have urged Georgians to maintain the status quo by voting no on the constitutional amendment before them, contending that a new state bureaucracy would be unanswerable to their needs and concerns. But voters should consider what “local control” of public education has meant in the Peach State.

Voters should consider what “local control” of public education has meant in the Peach State.

Fundamentally, it has empowered most of the state’s larger school districts to keep charter growth (and, therefore, school choice) moderate at best. Nowhere has that been more evident than in Gwinnett County, Georgia’s largest school system (and the thirteenth largest in the nation) where charter students make up less than 1 percent of the public school population.

Perhaps Gwinnett was on Republican state Senator Fran Millar’s mind when he wrote recently in the Atlanta-Journal Constitution that “there are areas of this state where local school boards will not approve any charter school.” But Gwinnett is hardly alone, and that is why voters should...

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett promised a school-choice juggernaut in the Keystone State when he campaigned for office two years ago. Not only has no crusade has ever come to pass, Corbett and the GOP-led state assembly let a modest charter school reform bill languish in the House recently without a vote. This should have been an opportunity for the state’s executive and legislative leadership to pay more than lip service to education reform. But, again, they failed.

This should have been an opportunity for the state’s executive and legislative leadership to pay more than lip service to education reform.

What’s worse, the bill the House killed had already been weakened through compromise. The effort to create an independent state board to authorize charters was removed to accommodate complaints for local school boards, which—with the exception of virtual schools—remain the sole charter authorizers in Pennsylvania. What was left was a commission to recommend a smarter funding strategy for charters, a provision to award high-performing charter schools with a ten-year  contract (up from five), an application of the state’s Ethics Act to charters, and a move to allow charter networks to oversee multiple schools with one board, among other things....

Anyone who cares about Catholic education ought to watch what’s happening in Philadelphia, not just because the archbishop there has turned twenty-one of his schools over to a private foundation, but because that foundation is applying business principles to schools that sorely need them.

Carter and Faith in the Future have the potential to invigorate a vital sector of education throughout North America.

For starters, the Faith in the Future Foundation two weeks ago chose a longtime education and charter-school guru named Samuel Casey Carter to shepherd its new network of Catholic high schools to viability. Carter has a resume you don’t generally find in a school administrator, and he knows how to measure a school’s effectiveness in ways that would be lost on the typical bishop.

But, if they succeed, Carter and Faith in the Future have the potential to invigorate a vital sector of education throughout North America.

One would be hard-pressed to find a diocese presently undertaking an analysis of the market conditions affecting its schools and its finances, but that’s precisely what Carter spent his first few days on the job developing. In a recent interview, he laid out a plan that would examine 1.)...

One of the central tenets of the charter-school idea is that these institutions should be open to all comers, regardless of an applicant’s home address. Ending “zip-code education,” after all, is a major motivation behind the school-choice movement. It’s a big deal, then, that a District of Columbia task force is looking into allowing charter schools to offer preferential treatment to applicants from their immediate neighborhoods. To be sure, a handful of other cities have already allowed such preferences—Denver, New York, New Orleans, and Chicago. In those cases, the neighborhood preferences were either sought by the schools—so that they could serve a needy local population—or school districts, as conditions of handing over public school buildings. That approach makes us a bit squeamish, but can be justified if the goal is to ensure that disadvantaged kids in a given locale have access to a great education. What’s impossible to justify, however, are preferences (or outright boundaries) that might keep poor kids out of charter schools. That’s precisely what could happen in D.C. if charters in certain gentrifying parts of the city, like Capitol Hill’s Ward Six, are allowed to use these preferences. The charter movement shouldn’t be doctrinaire. But it shouldn’t...

At some point, we ought to acknowledge that the traditional union contract is incompatible with the untraditional concept of charter schools. That should be easier to do now that the nation’s first union-led charter school is struggling to stay open.

The traditional union contract is incompatible with the untraditional concept of charter schools.

Now seven years old, the UFT Charter School is one of the lowest performing schools in New York City (it has scored two Ds on the city’s report card in three years) and its authorizer, the SUNY Charter Schools Institute, will soon consider whether to renew its charter.

This is a bad development for the United Federation of Teachers, considering that former UFT President Randi Weingarten said in 2005 that the school would “finally dispel the misguided and simplistic notion that the union contract is an impediment to success.” Many factors certainly may have contributed to the dismal achievement at the school, where less than a third of students are reading at grade level. But if anything, the UFT has shown us that union contracts are a poor fit for successful charters.

About 12 percent of the nation’s charter schools are unionized, according to 2010...

Let’s set aside the poor box office results for Won’t Back Down (which set a record for the worst film opening ever). There are still as many as twenty states considering legislation that would enact the parent trigger that inspired the film. Hollywood may not have the mojo to move these measures along more quickly, but there are many lawmakers who remain convinced that parents should be empowered to fire a school’s management if it’s failing their children or hire a charter provider who may do the job better.

Parent-trigger laws ought to give parents as many tools and options as are available.

For a law like this to succeed—and it remains far from clear whether it can—it ought to give parents as many tools and options as are available. That’s why it was troubling to see the trigger’s most evangelical supporter, Ben Austin, take an ideologically rigid stance against the role that for-profit educators might play in these turnaround efforts.

Austin heads up the Parent Revolution in California, which was the first state to pass a trigger law (it did so in January 2010) but he’s been busy lobbying for the trigger outside the Golden State...