Choice Words

The National PTA has taken a step that should help it dispel the criticism that it’s always in lockstep with the teacher unions: In its new policy platform, the parent-teacher association has taken the bold step of supporting giving groups other than local school boards the right to authorize charter schools.

For seventeen years, the National PTA, which has five million members, has urged state governments to give only school boards the authority to grant or deny charter applications. That changed this month, when the PTA’s board struck that restriction from its platform and extended its support, as the group’s president put it, to “all authorizing bodies.”

Sean Cavanagh at Education Week this week reported that the group says it wants to be more relevant in charter school policy, and its old position was at odds with the fact that local PTAs are increasingly working with charters authorized by universities or independent commissions. This is a big leap for a group that education analyst Thomas Toch once accused of being “out of step with many parents’ demands for change in public education today” and that has lobbied alongside teacher unions for decades. It’s also a change that collides...

The Cato Institute released a report from economist Richard Buddin today showing that “charter schools took approximately 190,000 students from private schools between 2000 and 2008,” a development that Cato scholar Adam Schaeffer said is “wreaking havoc on private education” while only marginally improving public schools. Overall, Buddin found that 8 percent of charter-elementary students and 11 percent of middle and high school students came from private schools. The numbers were worse for private schools in the nation’s major urban areas, where 32 percent of the elementary-charter enrollment was drawn from the private sector.

Food Addiction
Transfers from private to charter schools don't mean we're falling into a "charter-only reform trap."
Photo by Rennett Stowe.

It is true that charter schools have drained students from urban Catholic schools in particular (though my colleague Kathleen Porter-Magee has shown how enrollments declined at Catholic schools long before the first charters appeared). And Schaeffer and Buddin are right to point out the economic impact to the taxpayer...

We now have more evidence that school vouchers may have a big impact on students who struggle the most. A study released jointly yesterday by the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings and the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program on Education Policy and Governance showed that black students who won a school-voucher lottery in New York a generation ago were more likely to attend college than students who didn’t win.

We now have more evidence that school vouchers may have a big impact on students who struggle the most.

The results come from the first random-assignment experiment of voucher effects on college attendance, which should thaw the icy reception that greets many school choice studies (the randomized trial is the gold standard of research). Fifteen years ago, Harvard’s Paul Peterson began tracking the performance of two groups of elementary-school age children—one group that participated in a privately funded voucher program in New York, and one group that wanted to participate but didn’t win the lottery for admission.

Now that enough time has passed, Peterson and Brookings colleague Matthew Chingos have been able to see how college attendance differed between the groups. They found that a modestly funded program—the vouchers...

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia said yesterday that it is turning twenty-one of its Catholic schools over to independent management, a move the Philadelphia Inquirer justifiably called “radical.” Philadelphia was home to the nation’s first diocesan Catholic school system. Now it has the first Catholic school system run by a foundation of lay people.

What’s happening in Philadelphia is unprecedented.

The Faith in the Future Foundation will assume control over seventeen diocesan secondary schools and four special education schools starting this fall (the archdiocese will maintain control over elementary schools). The group formed earlier this year to promote Catholic education in the city. Now it has pledged to bring a “more metrics-driven management structure” to a school system hemorrhaging money and enrollment, and it is bringing marketing prowess to a church losing good will, too.

The 1.5 million members of the archdiocese have grown agitated since church leaders closed twenty-seven schools this year and spent $11 million to respond to a grand jury report on clergy sex abuse. The church may still own the buildings and assets it’s turning over to the foundation, but it will no longer be calling the academic and financial shots at the schools. That...

So what if it was a legal technicality? Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has found a way to keep an incompetent Board of Education from doing lasting damage to Detroit’s 69,000 remaining public-school pupils: He said seven of the board’s eleven members were elected to geographic districts when they were supposed to serve at-large, the district’s enrollment having fallen below the threshold that allows representation by geography. He filed a lawsuit last week to unseat them, prompting editorial writers in the Motor City to ask why he didn’t complain last year when school board elections put those members in office. But they know why:  Schuette filed his lawsuit the day after the dysfunctional board assumed greater control of the district from a weakened “emergency manager.” The A.G. had taken his own emergency action.

There is ample justification. For years, Michigan had limited the board’s powers by designating an emergency manager to oversee district spending. The board had nominal oversight over academics but lost that authority early last year when the legislature gave the emergency manager oversight over all school operations, together with the ability to tear up union contracts.

But it didn’t last. A voter registration group backed by...

Georgia voters are fortunate to experience a debate that’s dominated largely by policy wonks. In the fall, they’ll get to decide who has the power to authorize charter schools. The November ballot will ask whether the state and local school boards can share that responsibility. That question shines a spotlight on the issue of local control, and provides an opportunity to rethink what that means.

Citizens of the Peach State have this question before them because their state Supreme Court last year declared the Georgia Charter Schools Commission unconstitutional. Four of the seven justices ruled that only locally elected boards of education could authorize charters. The commission, an independent state panel, had authorized sixteen schools, and it did so over the objections of local boards.

Georgia voters are fortunate to experience a debate that’s dominated largely by policy wonks.

But if voters renew the state’s power to authorize charters (which I hope they will) they’ll do more than just re-establish the charter commission. They’ll be saying that local boards can’t be the only authority to say yes or no to charters. In essence, they’ll be re-affirming the concept of local control.

Voters last affirmed the constitutional language that governed...

When first proposed, the Coverdell Education Savings Account(ESA) generated the familiar bombast characteristic of public policies that offset private-school tuition. The late Teddy Kennedy declared, in 1998, that the accounts would “privatize education” because families who saved for private or parochial K-12 schooling could enjoy tax-free gains on their investment. Then-President Clinton argued that only wealthy families would reap the rewards, which would cost the federal government billions, and later made good on his promise to veto the measure when it passed.

From its inception, the Coverdell ESA encouraged families to save.

George W. Bush resurrected the bill when he took the Oval Office, but the late Georgia Senator Paul Coverdell died before he could see his effort enacted into law. A decade has passed and the tax break is scheduled to expire on December 31, 2012. Lawmakers should extend the program’s benefits.

From its inception, the Coverdell ESA encouraged families to save. It never really was a voucher, as Kennedy had claimed. Unlike a tax-credit scholarship, contributions to the Coverdell aren’t tax-deductible. Rather, families enjoy tax-free earnings on their investments so long as they use the money to cover qualified education expenses (which can include religious schooling).


Louisiana’s capital newspaper reported this week that two private schools that originally opted into the state’s new voucher program have changed their minds after the teachers union threatened them with legal action. One school is a non-denominational Christian school in suburban Baton Rouge that enrolls about 800 students. It initially set aside four kindergarten seats for the voucher program. The other, a Roman Catholic school in a rural parish ninety miles outside Baton Rouge, set aside six seats in its 200-student school.

So far, not many schools have taken the union’s “offer” to drop out of the voucher program and avoid litigation.

Most Louisiana private schools that chose to participate in the voucher program share these characteristics. They are faith-based and they have reserved a handful of seats for voucher-bearing students. They’ll derive the overwhelming majority of their revenues from tuition-paying students.

The state’s Department of Education had to take this into account when it drafted regulations to hold “voucher schools” more accountable. It decided, sensibly, that private schools enrolling large numbers of publicly funded students will be held to greater public transparency and results-linked accountability than schools enrolling just a handful. If the state imposed the...

Michigan’s present system of public-school funding may have made sense when families settled in communities anchored by a General Motors plant and rarely strayed far from the neighborhood school their children attended. But that system is archaic today. GM no longer drives the state economy. The unemployment rate hovers around 8.5 percent. Most families move to different neighborhoods, and different schools—or out of Michigan entirely—as needs and circumstances change. And Michgan’s neighborhood schools now compete with more than 250 public charter schools.

Michigan’s present system of public-school funding no longer makes sense.

This is the context in which Governor Rick Snyder has proposed a new way of funding education in the Wolverine State. He would bury the State School Aid Act of 1979, which funds districts and schools based on their total enrollments, and establish a system of funding that instead follows the child.

Snyder has charged a prominent Michigan attorney named Richard McLellan with finding a constitutionally sound way of creating a cost-efficient and transparent system of funding that allows for more public-school choice. This is well-timed, even urgent, considering that revenues for the state School Aid Fund have fallen 6.5 percent over the last few years,...

The Louisiana teacher union can’t get the courts to stop private schools from enrolling voucher-bearing students this fall, so they’ve taken to threatening the schools with litigation.

The law firm representing the Louisiana Association of Educators and others in their legal challenge against the state’s new voucher program has sent letters to schools that opted to participate in the program that “it will have no alternative other than to institute litigation” against them unless they opt out.

Two weeks ago, a district judge in Louisiana denied the union’s request for an injunction to block funding to the program, and an appellate court this week threw out the union’s request to overturn that decision. So now the plaintiffs have turned to bullying the schools.

A letter sent by attorney Brian Blackwell to one school asked for a promise not to accept any voucher funds. The alternative, Blackwell said, might be litigation. “We hope that you agree with us that proceeding with a program that is blatantly unconstitutional does not benefit students, parents, public schools or non-public schools,” he wrote.

The tactic worked. The school later wrote to state Superintendent John White that it was pulling out of the program. So...