Public school enrollments in the U.S. rose from 41 million in 1990 to almost 51 million today. That’s a nearly 25 percent increase in twenty-seven years—and the growth has been almost constant over that period, albeit much slower during the past decade. NCES projects that nearly 1.5 million more students will further swell the ranks of American public education by 2024.

Why, then, is enrollment decline an issue for schools and school systems? There are, as always, two possible—and obvious—explanations for why the number of kids attending a particular school or district shrinks even as national totals rise.

First, families may move from one community or region to another, as in the well- known shift from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt that’s been evident since the 1970s—a major demographic transformation brought about by economic changes (and the pursuit of better weather). That’s why Arizona today has nine House members versus three in 1970—and why Michigan has fourteen now versus nineteen then.

Second, families may change their child’s school—by shifting to a nearby district, by availing themselves of public school choice within the district, by opting to home-school, or by transferring to a private or charter school.


Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from “Is School Choice Enough?,” the lead article in the fall issue of National Affairs.

As with so many issues—from trade and immigration to Russia and taxes—the Trump presidency has exposed a schism within the conservative movement when it comes to education policy. While expanding parental choice is a paramount objective on the right, a key question is whether choice alone is enough, or if results-based accountability ought to be sustained and strengthened, too. How this question is resolved will have wide-ranging consequences—for education reform in general and for the design of school-choice initiatives in particular.

Though it’s easy to lump conservative school-choice advocates into a single category, there are some major disagreements between those who argue for school choice alone and those who wish to combine it with other reform strategies. The first and perhaps the most fundamental of these disagreements can be reduced to one question: Is parental satisfaction enough?

To better understand this question, a simple thought experiment is clarifying: Imagine that conservatives are wildly successful in expanding school choice. Every parent in America, however poor or rich, gains access to several educational options, including religious schools. In...

According to the most recent data published by the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education, 27 percent of public school teachers are chronically absent—meaning they miss more than ten days of school for illness or personal reasons.

That’s a lot. But is there an explanation for that number that might satisfy the many critics of our public school system? For example, might it be attributable to the fact that three-quarters of teachers are female, meaning they are more likely to miss work due to maternity and, in most cases, the burden of being primary caregivers?

The short answer is no.

Obviously, teaching is a challenging occupation, especially in high-poverty schools. So the point of this column isn’t that teachers are slackers, or that they should never get a day off, or that no teacher should ever be chronically absent. The point is that there’s room for improvement.

Per OCR, public holidays, professional development days, and field trips don’t count as teacher absences. Nor do summer, winter, or spring breaks. But the data do include days missed for maternity and long-term illness, so let’s crunch those numbers and see where it gets us.

In 2016, approximately...

(Trigger warning: This essay contains a bleeped, profanity-laced rant that may cause you to question your most deeply held beliefs.)

It's not often I cite vulgar, inappropriate humor to draw attention to the absurdity that occurs when someone sets achingly low standards and then expects accolades for surpassing them. But I cannot resist after re-discovering a raunchy (NSFW) skit from Chris Rock’s 1996 classic, savagely funny performance in “Bring the Pain”:

You know the worst thing about [bleeps]? [Bleeps] always want credit for some [bloop] they supposed to do. A [bleep] will brag about some [bloop] a normal man just does. A [bleep] will say some [bloop] like, "I take care of my kids." You're supposed to, you dumb [bleeper][bleeper]! What kind of ignorant [bloop] is that? "I ain't never been to jail!" What do you want, a cookie?! You're not supposed to go to jail, you low-expectation-having [bleeper][bleeper]!

I have been wondering how Chris Rock would re-write this skit as we enter the annual season in which a parade of education reform leaders triumphantly announce academic results marginally superior to the poor outcomes of the public education system we have committed our lives to transform....

This study uses administrative data and other public records to examine the impact of unionization on the test-based achievement of California charter schools between 2003 and 2013. Using a difference-in-differences approach, the authors estimate that unionization boosted math achievement by about 0.2 standard deviations but did not significantly affect reading achievement. These estimates differ from those of Hart and Sojourner (2015), who analyzed similar data but found that unionization had no impact on test scores. However, in the appendix of the more recent study, the authors provide a mostly convincing defense of their methodological choices.

A quarter of California charters were unionized in 2013, and between them these schools accounted for a third of charter enrollment. However, for obvious reasons, the authors exclude “conversion” charters that are automatically unionized because they are legally bound to the district contract. So their analytic sample includes just forty-four charter schools that switched from non-unionized to unionized between 2003 and 2013.

Overall, students in unionized charters score about 0.5 standard deviations higher on math and about 0.3 standard deviations higher in reading than students in non-unionized charter schools. And teachers in these schools are more experienced and far more likely to be on track...

“We shall have to build the schoolhouse first and the church afterward. In our age, the question of education is the question of the church.” – Archbishop “Dagger John” Hughes

John Joseph Hughes was a feisty Irish immigrant who became the first Catholic Archbishop of New York. If you have seen the film “Gangs of New York,” you have a sense of the city in which he charted a course for the Catholic church, with the explicit purpose of helping immigrants find their way in their new home.

I say “feisty” because, like many of the scrappy Catholic school teachers and leaders we work with today, he was exactly that. One account described Dagger John as: “Unsystematic, disorganized, impulsively charitable, unable to keep his checkbook balanced, vain enough to wear a toupee over his baldness, and combative.” He became “the best known, if not exactly the best loved, Catholic bishop in the country."

Yet, Archbishop Hughes’s “dagger” was not only his sharp personality, but also his unwavering belief in the transformative power of Catholic schools. He faced fights from the legislature, from “nativist” mobs who attacked him and ransacked his home. But he always stayed true to his...

Teenagers declaring “I’m bored” is as timeless as a John Hughes film, but may mask a serious problem: Among high school students who consider dropping out, approximately 50 percent cite a lack of engagement with school as a primary reason, and 42 percent report that they don’t see value in the work they are asked to do. In a recent Fordham study, What Teens Want: A National Survey of High School Student Engagement, we found that many students are not being served effectively by the traditional “one size fits all” comprehensive high school. At the same time, there’s growing support for giving adolescents more educational choices.

To explore what keeps these schools from proliferating and how obstacles can be overcome, Fordham, along the American Federation for Children, invited Tamar Jacoby, president of Opportunity America, Kevin Teasley, president of the Greater Educational Opportunities (GEO) Foundation, Jon Valant, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Zach Verriden, executive director of HOPE Christian Schools (Wisconsin Region) to participate in a panel discussion on August twenty-second, moderated by senior vice president for research, Amber Northern.

Speaking from their unique perspectives, the four panelists covered various issues within high school...

Terry Ryan

Competition or cooperation? The district-charter school debate has swung back and forth between these alternative strategies since the first public charter schools opened twenty-five years ago. No group has striven harder over that period to find a workable balance than the Seattle-based Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE). Better Together: Ensuring Quality District Schools in Times of Charter Growth and Declining Enrollment is CRPE’s latest effort to bring a moderate, research-based middle-ground to the fraught charter/district relationship that is still too often defined by acrimony, blame, and zero-sum arguments.

Better Together builds on CRPE’s deep expertise in establishing and promoting “District-Charter Collaboration Compacts.” It grows out of the conversation of “more than two dozen policymakers, practitioners, researchers and advocates” that took place at CRPE’s behest in January. Can school districts and charter schools co-exist, even cooperate? Is there a “grand bargain” to be struck that could benefit both sectors while—most important—serving the best interests of students, voters, and taxpayers?

District-charter collaboration is especially challenging in communities with declining student enrollments. In Rust Belt cities like Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Dayton, the district population has declined by tens or hundreds of thousands of students. Detroit, for example,...

We’ve known for a while—thanks to the National Assessment and other measures—that American primary-secondary students aren’t learning a heckuva lot of civics, never mind that social studies is taught everywhere and taking high school civics is a widespread graduation requirement. Indeed, the Education Commission of the States reports that:

  • “Every state requires students to complete coursework in civics or social studies in order to graduate….
  • Thirty-seven states require students to demonstrate proficiency through assessment in civics or social studies. [and]
  • Seventeen states include civic learning in their accountability frameworks.”

That it isn’t working very well was obvious when, for example, NAEP assessed civics in 2006 and found that fewer than a quarter of high school seniors could supply a satisfactory answer to a question about the means by which citizens can change laws. Or when the Annenberg Public Policy Center surveyed American adults in 2014 and found that only 36 percent could name the three branches of the U.S. government.

That it isn’t working very well on a long-term basis is painfully evident from the recent behavior, voting patterns, and discourse of millions of American adults, including some at the highest levels of government.

Fortunately, there’s continuing awareness...

Research confirms what common sense dictates: Students learn less when their teachers aren’t there. According to multiple studies, a ten-day increase in teacher absence results in at least ten fewer days of learning for students.

Clearly, some absences are unavoidable—teachers are only human. But compared to their counterparts in other industries and other countries, U.S. teachers seem to have poor attendance. On average, they miss about eight school days a year due to sick and personal leave (in addition to the breaks they get for school vacations and national holidays); meanwhile, the average U.S. worker takes about three-and-a-half sick days a year. Yet the first of these averages obscures the degree to which absenteeism is concentrated among a subset of teachers.

In Teacher Absenteeism in Charter and Traditional Public Schools, Fordham senior research and policy associate David Griffith takes an unprecedented look at teacher chronic absenteeism rates in charter and traditional public schools—that is, the percentage of teachers who miss at least eleven days of school, excluding professional development days and field trips.

His major findings include the following:

  • Nationally, teachers in traditional public schools are almost three times as likely to be chronically absent as teachers in charter
  • ...