Choice Words

Guest Blogger

We asked a few experts to share their thoughts on our newly published paper, "Charting a New Course to Retirement: How Charter Schools Handle Teacher Pensions"?an online forum of sorts. Here is a guest post by Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute.

U. Missouri's invaluable Mike Podgursky and Fordham's Amanda Olberg have just issued a study of the kind that we'd have been swimming in years ago, if ed reformers were serious about cost structures or charter schools as an opportunity to rethink the industrial school model. In studying the simple and immensely practical question of how charter schools handle teacher retirement when state law allows them to opt out of the state's pension system, Podgursky and Olberg examine just how much rethinking charters are doing when it comes to the familiar, expensive, and binding routines of schooling?and what lessons that holds for schools more broadly.

The inattention to this question is really pretty astounding. As Podgursky and Olberg remind us, pension costs accounted for 15 percent of teacher salaries in 2010, and pensions probably amounted to more than...

Guest Blogger

Today, Fordham released our latest, "Charting a New Course to Retirement: How Charter Schools Handle Teacher Pensions." Authors Amanda Olberg and Michael Podgursky explain the report's findings here.

In the wake of the economic downturn, American public schools face serious, long-term fiscal challenges. Of them, rising pension costs are a particular concern. Yet school districts have no mechanisms for reining in these costs; almost all districts are tethered by statute to state pension systems (or, sometimes, their own local pension systems). It turns out, though, that some states allow their public charter schools to opt out of those systems. How they handle this opportunity bears scrutiny?and may suggest some lessons for the larger public-education system.

Nationally, teacher compensation comprises 55 percent of current expenditures in K-12 education. (That figure rises to 81 percent when all school staff are included.) A large and growing share of these costs goes to help fund retirement benefits. Between 2004 and 2010, for example, district pension costs (not counting retiree health insurance) increased from 12 percent to over 15 percent of salaries....


First came the recruitment of State Superintendent Deborah Gist; next came winning $75 million in Race to the Top (RTTT) funds. Rhode Island has been on a whirlwind track toward education reform over the past couple years. And?as one with boatloads of Ocean State pride (who doesn't love coffee milk, water fire, and Dels lemonade?)?it's been fun to watch.

Of course, no reform effort is without its drama. Parents erupted when Central Falls Superintendent Frances Gallo announced a turnaround effort at the city's high school. Currently, organized pushback is being targeted against the expansion of Achievement First (AF) into Rhodey.

AF is a proven high-quality charter-school network, currently operating nineteen charters in New York and Connecticut. In 2007, one of its campuses was highlighted by the US DOE as a model for closing the achievement gap; it was one of seven such schools in the country. In 2009, fourth graders at AF's two oldest campuses (both in New York) demonstrated 93 percent proficiency in English language arts and 99 percent proficiency in math.

Since Rhode Island submitted its RTTT application, there have been tentative plans to expand AF the Ocean State. These plans?and the vocal opposition...

Liam Julian

I had a conversation today with a friend, a mother of two young boys, who recently won for them, through a lottery, places in a Washington, D.C., charter school. My friend mentioned that she has been approached by several people looking to buy the spots she won; these people are offering cold, hard cash. The highest?offer so far, she said, has been $1500 per slot. But she's not selling. Her experience obviously illustrates the craving if not desperation of parents in D.C. for educational options for their children. One wonders how high the bidding could go for the charter school spots she holds.

?Liam Julian, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow


An analysis released in today's Education Gadfly finds that new charter schools in disadvantaged communities are almost four times as likely to reach above-average rates of student achievement as the closest district school. This raises serious questions about the wisdom of the federal government pumping $3 billion into school turnaround efforts instead of using some of the money to replicate and scale up successful charter models.

However, the finding comes with several big caveats. First, because of the small sample size, the results cannot be deemed statistically significant. And second, it's impossible to know whether "selection effects" played a role--whether the new charter schools performed better because they attracted better students.

The analysis was by David Stuit, a Vanderbilt PhD. who authored a previous Fordham study on school turnarounds last December.

The idea for this analysis came from Public Impact's Bryan Hassel. After the release of our December study--which found that just one percent of district and charter school turnarounds were successful, as defined as reaching at least the 50th percentile in state proficiency in reading and math--Bryan wondered whether charter start-ups in similar neighborhoods would fare any better against such rigorous criteria.



Charters in Ohio have a contentious and troubled history. Events over the last few weeks have added another controversial chapter to the story. With Republicans in charge of the House, lobbyists for the large for-profit charter management company White Hat (currently operating 30 schools in Ohio) pushed for charter legislation in that chamber that would effectively create corporate, private schools, funded directly by the state but free of all state accountability requirements. As long as the kids show up the state money will flow. Whether the kids learn anything or not doesn't matter. In fact these new corporate private schools wouldn't even have to take state achievement tests or face other pesky state accountability provisions.

Yesterday's Columbus Dispatch ran a front page piece on the political maneuverings behind all this, and Fordham was drawn into the story (see here and note below). Fordham has been a staunch supporter of charter schools in Ohio since before the first ones opened in 1998. But, we have also been equally unyielding in our belief that all schools that receive public dollars to educate children should be held accountable for their academic and fiscal performance. We support things like school report cards...

Amy Fagan

We wanted to help get the word out ? this Sunday (January 23) kicks off National School Choice Week. It's a week of events and discussion across the country, aimed highlighting the need for effective education options for all children. You can read about it here ? no one group is organizing it, but rather, many.

There's a list of participating groups here. Events will be happening?in nearly every state and there's a nifty webpage where you can type in your zip code and see a list of events in your local area.

Fordham Institute's Terry Ryan will be speaking at a panel event in Columbus, Ohio, on January 25 (sponsored by School Choice Ohio). And here in DC, there's a kickoff?reception and panel discussion (about the future of school choice in America) on Thursday, January 20, hosted by Reason. NOTE: Space for this event is limited, so you must RSVP by mid-day tomorrow, January 19,?at the latest.

?Amy Fagan...

Amy Fagan

Today's NY Times Room for Debate poses the question, Do Home Schoolers Deserve a Tax Break? The question explores one of the proposals of the new Republicans in Congress ? give parents in every state tax credits if their children are home-schooled. The discussion includes thoughts from various experts, including our own Chester Finn. What does Checker say about the matter? Well, in a nutshell his answer is ?Yes, but Tests Are Necessary.? He says it is reasonable for the government to offset some of the costs of home schooling, much like is done with childcare. But home-schooled students should have to take state tests, in return for the financial help, he says. Check out the discussion to read his explanation in full, along with those of other experts.

?Amy Fagan