Christy Wolfe

As a mom of three children, I’ve learned that structure and a few rules can make life much more enjoyable for everyone, including the kids. Family rules should be clear, simple, and consistently enforced. Structure in a context of empowerment can make all the difference.

What’s true of families can also be true of the relationship between the federal government and the states. In my eight years working on regulations for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act at the U.S. Department of Education, I learned that rules and guidance can be as much about protecting freedom, promoting flexibility, and encouraging state-led innovation as they are about ensuring faithful application of federal laws. In fact, one of the most valuable pieces of guidance the federal government can offer to states is to avoid inferring federal mandates where they don’t exist.

Regulatory clarity is especially valuable when it comes to promoting school choice. Secretary Betsy DeVos now has the opportunity to use federal regulations and guidance to create a safe space for states and local authorities that want to maximize the potential for school choice.

Congress can be vague—on purpose

When Congress agrees on...

As Secretary DeVos and Attorney General Sessions and their teams work down the list of Obama-era mischief that needs reversing, let’s hope that their agencies’ joint 2014 “guidance” regarding school discipline is near the top.

This wasn’t a formal rule that can only be undone by engaging in an elaborate new regulatory process. No, it was actually more insidious than that—but also more easily correctable. It was a menacing, twenty-plus page “dear colleague” letter, co-signed by senior civil rights enforcers in the education and justice departments, and sent around the land to state and local education leaders.

Because it was “guidance” rather than “regulation,” it wasn’t—and isn’t—something that must be obeyed. But it was plenty chilling. Aimed arrow-like at “zero-tolerance” style school discipline as well as racial discrepancies, it said, in effect, that if anyone even hints that your discipline policy shows any of the (numerous) warning signs that suggest to us that discrimination might be occurring—these are itemized at length—our agencies will investigate. And if we find that you’re doing anything wrong, we have another long list at the ready, this time consisting of painful remedies we can apply to you.

As legal scholar Richard Epstein noted in...

A new descriptive study by Marcus Winters examines whether low-performing students are more likely to exit charter schools than surrounding traditional public schools.

We’re all aware of the claim that some charter schools “counsel out” their lowest performing students, so this analysis looks into whether there’s evidence to that claim. Analysts use six years of student-level administrative data from New York City (2006–12) and Denver (2007–13), two large urban districts with growing and effective charter sectors. They use test scores from grades 3–8, which are combined into one math-ELA standardized measure for each student by grade and year.

The researchers find that low-performing students are on average more mobile than their higher-performing peers. Yet low-performing students in both cities are either equally likely or less likely to exit their charter schools than are students in traditional public schools. In particular, in New York City, low performers are about 5 percentage points less likely to exit their charter school than their traditional school. In Denver, there is no statistical difference between the sectors.

This study does not get into the more qualitative question of whether schools are pushing students out. Yet, the analysts conclude: “[I]f attrition of low-performing students is...

The Every Student Succeeds Act loosens the requirements governing teacher evaluation systems, and a recent Bellwether Education Partners report analyzes what that means for states, which can now tailor these policies to their own circumstances. Authors suggest ways state officials can learn from past reforms to institute more effective state-led policies.

It’s the authors’ view that the goal of teacher evaluations should be to optimize instructional practice, as measured by academic growth assessments. Many states and districts now use student scores on these tests to, in part, measure teacher effectiveness. Implementation has been rocky in many places, but recent reforms have, overall, improved relations between proponents and opponents of test-based teacher accountability, according to the authors. A growing number of districts and schools, for example, welcome open, constructive dialogue about effective instructional practice; provide specific support and development for each and every teacher; and work to better understand the connection between teacher practice and student academic growth. Nevertheless, many still question whether it’s fair to use test scores to determine teacher effectiveness. And others argue that state tests don’t adequately measure student learning. States looking to reconsider or alter their teacher evaluation policies ought to be cognizant of how these...

Editor's note: This post has been updated to include a list of all submissions, which we will publish on a rolling basis. Scroll all the way down and click on a title to read that proposal.

For several years now, we at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute have hosted an annual “Wonkathon” on our Flypaper blog to generate substantive (and deeply nerdy, as the name implies) conversation around key issues in education reform. (Last year’s, on ways to promote and support school choice under ESSA, can be found here.)

We’re pleased to announce our topic for Wonkathon 2017: President Trump’s highly anticipated school choice proposal. To be maximally helpful to the folks inside the Administration and on the Hill who are actually working on this, we are seeking blog posts that focus on the nitty-gritty of how such an initiative should be structured. (Meaning we’re not interested here in debating whether choice is a good thing or whether it’s a good idea for the feds even to get involved with it. Though, to be clear, those questions are worth debating!)

Participants are free to propose anything they like, so long as:

  • It promotes the expansion of parental choice in
  • ...

Earlier this month, Washington, D.C.’s local CBS affiliate published a moving story about tragedy and triumph in the city’s schools. Here’s an excerpt:

Last week, students at one D.C. school were rallying around a classmate who was hurt in a double shooting.

On Wednesday, they celebrate 17 classmates who signed full scholarships to college.

Crime tape and flashing lights. Evidence markers and stained clothes. This is more than just a crime scene, more than just a lead story.

This is life for far too many of D.C.’s students, so when they come out on the other side, they can’t hold back the tears.

It was an emotional day at Friendship Public Charter School on Minnesota Avenue in Northeast, D.C.

Jordan Marshall's close friend Ralph was killed in a drive by.  He was 17 years old and taught Jordan how to play ball. 

“Football was an alley way for me,” said Marshall. “A way I can get out all my frustration of the day.”

Stories drive change in America. No matter how many try to push back on that by citing the virtue of...

During his campaign, President Trump promised a focus on school choice to the tune of $20 billion. Although few details have been offered about his ideas, the Trump administration appears to be taking steps to follow through—starting with the nomination (and now confirmation) of longtime school choice advocate Betsy DeVos as America’s next education secretary.

With a choice supporter in place as the nation’s top education leader, the Trump administration could soon begin crafting its plan for a national school choice program. There are a few options the administration could pursue, but creating a tax-credit for individuals or corporations who contribute to scholarship granting organizations seems to be the most politically feasible. These scholarships, commonly referred to as vouchers, enable eligible students to attend a private school using public dollars—and as is the case with many public-private programs, they are hotly debated.

Part of the reason the voucher debate is so fierce is because of the research associated with it. Although early studies found positive impacts, recent studies of programs in Louisiana and Ohio have found less encouraging results. This now-mixed bag of findings leaves policy makers—and the Trump administration in particular—with a complicated problem: What’s...

On February 7, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 234-190 to roll back regulations created under President Obama that interpret the accountability provisions of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The measure now goes to the Senate, where it’s likely to pass and then to President Trump, who has promised to sign it. News of this major move was largely lost amidst the coverage of Betsy DeVos’s fractious confirmation process. This is unfortunate considering that the Congressional action could affect American education more than the new education secretary, at least in the near term.

To void these regulations, House Republicans wielded an obscure statute called the Congressional Review Act, which had only been successfully used once before—in 2001 by President George W. Bush. (That’s likely to change, however, as GOP lawmakers this month also used the same tactic to repeal rules interpreting ESSA’s teacher preparation provisions, as well as others pertaining to non-education issues.)

Typically, repealing regulations is an arduous process undertaken within the executive branch, involving a notice-and-comment period and, sometimes, litigation challenges. The Congressional Review Act circumvents all that by allowing a simple majority vote (it can’t be filibustered) in both houses...

My friend and colleague Robert Pondiscio has done his best—and that’s a high bar—to navigate and mediate between Jason Bedrick and Mike Petrilli in the latest chapter of America’s endless debate about whether school accountability is best done via the parent marketplace or state assessment regimes.

The argument is important—and Robert strives to find a middle ground: he’s for testing, he’s for choice, he’s for accountability—but he ends up closer to Bedrick in expressing reservations about “test-based accountability.” And he does this via a far-fetched analogy to foster care, asking whether parents would bar their kids from soccer and gymnastics if the big, bad state were to determine that foster placements will be based on the frequency of children’s visits to hospital emergency rooms. Robert frets that just as many parents would change their family behavior in undesirable ways so as to keep kids out of the ER for fear of losing them to the foster-care system, so schools alter their behavior in educationally undesirable ways when test scores determine their fate within the accountability system.

He’s got a point, of course. We’re all mindful of the downside of excessive reliance on test scores as criteria by...

No reasonable adult would suggest eliminating the foster care system, or making it impossible for responsible government authorities to remove abused or neglected children from unsafe homes. On the one hand, no one wants to tell parents how to raise their kids. But on the other hand, when the health and well-being of a child is at risk we don’t shrug it off; we intervene. And not indiscriminately or capriciously: about 400,000 children are in foster care at a given moment—a tiny fraction of the nearly 75 million children under 18 in America. Removing children from their parents is a drastic measure and appropriately rare.

“Drastic and rare” is surely what my Fordham Institute colleague Mike Petrilli has in mind in wanting to ensure that no child gets stuck in a hopeless and godforsaken school. Mike and my friend Jason Bedrick, Director of Policy at EdChoice, have been exchanging friendly fire over school choice and accountability. Bedrick says choice is accountability. Schools ought to be “directly answerable to the people most affected by their performance,” or parents, not regulators and bureaucrats; I made a similar argument in a U.S. News column in December. Mike agrees, but also wants...