Get real about voucher-school accountability

It’s no fun to argue with friends—at least not about serious matters—and worse to find respected colleagues slipping into error or avoiding reality. But that’s my regretful take on where Jay Greene and Rick Hess have headed on the (admittedly tricky) issue of accountability for voucher schools.

The policy question is indisputably important: are voucher-bearing kids, their parents, and the policymakers and taxpayers who make their participation possible well served by the education they acquire at the private schools they attend? Is this a good investment of public dollars? Is it worth the political tussles that such programs invariably trigger?

Similar questions must be asked about youngsters who benefit from tax-credit scholarships, the difference being that the dollars involved in those programs are not actually “public.” Rather, they are monies that never enter the public fisc because they are routed into the scholarship programs instead. But that, too, is an education investment arising from politically fraught decisions by policy makers—and anyone who cares about either an individual child’s education or the cultivation of an educated society must also ask whether these schools are effective.

Believing that these are important matters, we at Fordham have, on several occasions, urged an “accountability” regime for private-school-choice programs that includes both test results and fiscal transparency on the part of participating schools. We’ve also recommended a “sliding scale” whereby a school’s continued participation in the program would hinge in part on the extent of its dependence on revenues from that program.

Yes, that’s complicated, arguable, and worthy of debate.

But the recent criticisms of the Fordham approach by Jay and Rick have focused primarily on the prior question of how anyone knows how the kids and schools are doing.

Our team believes that, in a country that judges student achievement and school effectiveness in the public sector primarily by test results—and yes, we’re keenly aware of the limits of that approach—voucher-bearing kids should also take tests whose results can be compared with those of their public-school peers.

The simplest way to do this, and certainly the way that allows the most direct comparisons, is for voucher students to take the same tests as their peers, which means the state tests, now undergoing review and replacement in many jurisdictions (at least in math and English) as a result of the Common Core standards.

That’s what we have proposed. We’re also mindful that other tests, both criterion- and norm-based, might do the job, so long as their results are made public in ways that make comparisons and evaluations possible.

Lots of private schools do this already, of course, and our surveys of school leaders indicate that being required to do this is not a heinous problem for most of them and is certainly not a deal breaker when it comes to participating in the voucher or scholarship program. (Other requirements would be, particularly if they touch on admissions or religion.) Indeed, several of the country’s largest extant voucher programs (Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio, and Milwaukee) already mandate some version of such testing on the part of participating private schools.

So what’s the big deal with Jay and Rick?

Though he’s spent much of his career drawing policy conclusions from test results, Jay now favors doing away with testing altogether! He would substitute market mechanisms (in the public-education sector as well as the private) and would trust the market to hold schools accountable. This is to say that he would let parents (and students) decide whether the education is satisfactory both for them (the “private-good” aspect of education) and for the larger society (the “public-good” aspect.)

We at Fordham favor school choice (in every sector) as ardently as Jay does, but it’s insane to expect this marketplace to yield quality control, efficiency, and accountability for educational outcomes. There are at least a dozen reasons why it simply doesn’t work that way. (For starters, many consumers are satisfied with school characteristics that have little to do with academic achievement, and many schools are adept at marketing to them—and making claims that are about as true as McDonalds’s claims to foster health and nutrition. We could go on.)

Rick, to his credit, understands that testing is here to stay and that it serves a purpose, though he, too, is keenly aware of its limitations, especially when only reading and math are assessed. His big problem with the Fordham approach seems to be concern about the “camel’s nose” of government regulation—“regulatory creep” he terms it—in the private-school sphere. (“What’s to stop a well-intentioned, enterprising legislator from suggesting those schools really ought to have certified teachers…”)

That’s a legitimate worry—especially in the regulation-crazed Obama era—but it’s one that applies to every sphere of life that government brushes up against. Indeed, it already applies to private schools, which must be recognized by their states (as satisfying compulsory-education laws); must comply with sundry zoning, fire, and safety rules and building codes; must ensure that their pupils are vaccinated; and on and on. Because private schools in many states already receive various forms of government assistance (textbooks and busing, for instance), they must already comply with various added rules and conditions. In places where they receive voucher-bearing pupils, they face even more hassles. Here, for example, is a tiny excerpt from Florida’s rules for private schools taking part in that state’s much-admired McKay Scholarship Program (for youngsters with disabilities):

“The Scholarship Compliance Form delineates private school reporting requirements specified pursuant to Section 1002.42, F.S., and statutory and regulatory requirements related to the areas of school location and contact information; school ownership; affiliation; financial solvency; school administration; school staffing; school program; student health, safety, and welfare; student records; school facility; and submission of the scholarship compliance form.”

Regulatory creep, indeed. But these things are dealt with through the same political mechanisms that give rise to voucher programs in the first place. Schools and organizations (and individuals) that find a given requirement objectionable will push back against it—and, if they’re effective, will block it or have it modified. If participation is too onerous, a school remains free to decline to participate in the program. If too many schools decline, the program won’t accomplish much and its initial purpose will be defeated. That’s how politics and policymaking work, as Rick well knows.

That’s probably why he’s pushing back himself, in this case against the Fordham proposal. But what would he do instead? Trust the market, like Jay? At some point, he really needs to descend from Mt. Olympus and enter the real world of real decisions about actual programs, not just point out what could go wrong with everybody else’s proposal.

I have been blessed with a few decades worth of work in education policy, and I have never seen a moment with more potential.

While it is possible and valid to reflect on the last twenty years and be disappointed that we didn’t make blistering-fast progress, it’s just as valid to be proud of the accomplishments we have made: reliable information about school performance, better evidence about key factors in school success, and the emergence of a whole new set of education choices that show what is possible.

Teachers have been the engines behind the best of what has transpired in the past two decades, and we rely on their initiative to create the best models of schooling going forward. This is as it should be.

In most professions, those who specialize in their techniques attract clients drawn to their work and success. In short, they can bring their skills to the marketplace and succeed there. In schooling, too, many moons ago, this was the case. It was teachers who created the design of a local school meant to serve the students in a particular area.

In our broader public-education sector, however, we gradually eroded this leadership role for teachers in the early part of the twentieth century. That was a loss. But today, that role is resurging, and we must see our “five-star” teachers and school leaders—not state policies—as those will drive success.

At the end of the day, success in schooling happens at the school, as a function of the skills and beliefs of the people in that school. The practice of excellent instruction is the job of a school. As lawmakers lose confidence in our school systems at large, however, we often try to “apply” excellent practice through legislation. That is just not possible.

What is possible is for lawmakers to create policies that incentivize, to create pathways to leadership for those educators who seek it, and to ensure that we set very clear achievement goals and have systems in place to measure those in meaningful ways.

Laws and regulations can successfully define and dictate expectations, accountability, and transparency. They cannot and should not attempt to dictate methods.

We must shift our focus away from finding ways to improve mediocrity and towards identifying, accelerating, and expanding success.

We often say that A schools, or five-star schools, should be “celebrated.”

Honestly, without discounting the importance of positive reinforcement, what does that mean? A celebration at my workplace is called a contract for more work. It is recognition that I can do more and better and that I should be paid more and produce more of what is excellent about my work. I have the opportunity and responsibility to expand my impact if I am having a good effect.

How can we do that with schools? A five-star school strategy pursues excellence only. It shifts our actions from deciding which punitive actions we must impose on schools that fail the standard to gathering our best practitioners together and asking them what they are doing and if they would be willing to do more of it or teach others how to do it. Our work becomes finding out from them what it would take.

Let’s just ask them: Could you expand or replicate your work if the law incentivized it and the funding formula aligned with it? Is there a way for the law to assist you in recruiting the perfect kind of teacher for your environment? Will higher salaries answer recruitment needs?

I want to be very clear about this approach: it is NOT a charter-school approach or a district- or virtual-school approach. It is an excellence approach. The biggest divide we have in our school systems today is not between governance styles. The biggest divide is between the performance of schools that are successful and those that are not.

Great schools have simply made the decision to get there. No amount of outside pressure or elaborate laws can take the place of that decision. Laws might create the tension that spurs the decision, but only school leaders can implement the work. We must move with those leaders.

But we must do more than just say thank you. Reward these leaders with more work. Stand behind them, keep supporting their work, and help them to do more of it. We should ask ourselves if our policies are focused on expanding what is working, rather than attempting to improve what is not.

Our children’s lives are literally changed by the leadership of the schools they attend. Excellent schools offer students an earned confidence in their own abilities, help children see themselves in their community and the world beyond, and urge young people to offer the world their very best. The stakes are so high.

And we can’t afford to lose the potential of this moment and the leaders who have brought us here. These great leaders are everything to us, and I believe they will take us all exactly where we want to go. We need to focus on building a road they can travel.

Lisa Graham Keegan is the principal partner at the Keegan Company and founder of the Education Breakthrough Network. This editorial was adapted from comments given on Monday, January 6, 2014, at the Idaho Business for Education Legislative Academy in Boise.

The State of the Union was unusually light on education, though President Obama did touch on early-childhood education, ed tech, college access, and (of course) Race to the Top. However, the real action came the next morning, when the U.S. Department of Education issued guidance for its Public Charter Schools Program, giving charters the option of using “weighted lotteries” without surrendering their shot at federal start-up dollars. Mike Petrilli has been making the case for policies like this for years, and argued in this weekend’s Washington Post (along with Sam Chaltain and Rick Kahlenberg) that D.C. should embrace a variety of strategies to integrate its public schools. Checker Finn, however, flipped out at what he deemed “nanny-statism”—and a Flypaper brawl ensued.

Senator Lamar Alexander filed legislation that would consolidate some eighty federal education programs into one giant funding stream, in order to create an optional school-choice program for states. It would take about $24 billion, or 41 percent of current federal spending on elementary and secondary public schools, and let states decide whether to allow low-income families to carry their children’s share of these dollars to the public or private schools of their choice. Senator Tim Scott also has a school-choice bill floating around that would allow families of students with disabilities to gain access to $11 billion in federal dollars for private-school vouchers. Snaps! (Check out this Flypaper post by Michael Brickman for more analysis.)

Vergara v. California, the trial over California’s teacher-protection laws, has commenced. Plaintiffs have taken an equity tack, arguing that the state’s teacher-dismissal process, teacher-tenure laws, and “last hired, first fired” policies “put poor and minority children at a higher risk of receiving subpar instruction than their peers” thereby abrogating a state constitutional guarantee of a quality education for every citizen. Those who oppose the lawsuit, the state itself and teacher unions, retort that these laws are essential for recruiting and retaining teachers. The plaintiffs plan to call as witnesses scholars Raj Chetty, Thomas Kane, and Eric Hanushek, as well as Los Angeles Superintendent John Deasy. The defense has Linda Darling-Hammond, Jesse Rothstein, and Steve Zimmer in the wings. We’ll be keeping an eye on this one!

The Ohio Auditor’s Office released a bombshell report yesterday that accused high-level bureaucrats in Columbus City Schools of deliberately manipulating student records to artificially boost schools’ academic results. Within the district’s “culture of deceit,” administrators improperly erased student absences, changed their grades, and withdrew some pupils from school records. Call it what you will—a train-wreck, system failure, an implosion of the nth degree—but the takeaway is simple: “adults cheated.”

Public Impact has authored a report for NACSA and the Charter School Growth Fund with ten policy recommendations to foster accelerated growth of successful charter schools and school networks. Two themes emerge. The first: Taking a differentiated approach to key aspects of charter-school-authorizing work—school accountability frameworks, school replication, and school renewal—is important. Here, differentiation also means treating high-performing charters differently than others; options include green-lighting multiple schools over several years contingent on the performance of their predecessors and using shorter applications tailored to existing schools, capitalizing on the quantitative and qualitative data that an authorizing office has already collected as part of its oversight duties. The second: State policy must complement those efforts. Recommendations include crafting legislation that builds a statewide community of authorizers committed to scaling quality (e.g., establishing standards for authorizer quality and encouraging school districts to embrace a portfolio management approach); removing or tweaking state caps on charter schools so that only high performers may grow (and, conversely, adopting mandatory closure laws, as we have in Ohio, for perennial low performers); providing capital for incubation and acceleration efforts; being open to school-governance models that support inter and intra-state networks of schools; and integrating a “restart strategy” (i.e., transitioning the charter of a low-performing charter school to a new board and management team). To which we say, bring it on!

SOURCE: Public Impact, Replicating Quality: Policy Recommendations to Support the Replication and Growth of High-Performing Charter Schools and Networks (Chicago: National Association of Charter School Authorizers and Public Impact, January 2014).

A state’s laws and policies set the conditions for a thriving charter-school environment. Good policy can ensure that public charters have access to the resources they need and the freedom to innovate, while also ensuring accountability for academic outcomes. But not all state charter laws are created equal. Some uphold the autonomy-accountability promise, while incentivizing, encouraging, and speeding the opening of high-quality schools. Some fall short—sometimes by a little, sometimes by a mile. Now in its fifth year, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’s (NAPCS) annual rating of state charter laws contains twenty components, including how well each state fares with respect to charter caps, authorizer standards and practices, the degree of school autonomy, and funding provisions. Minnesota, Indiana, and Louisiana topped the rankings. (Fordham’s home state of Ohio clocked in at a dismal but well-deserved twenty-eighth out of forty-three jurisdictions.) The biggest movers from 2013 to 2014? Mississippi leapt from forty-third to fourteenth place; Idaho jumped from thirty-second to twentieth; and Indiana moved up from ninth to second. NAPCS commended Mississippi for its “significant overhaul” of the state’s young charter-school law (enacted in 2010). The Magnolia State’s changes included a bump in the cap on start-up and conversion charters and the establishment of a statewide authorizing entity. Both Idaho and Indiana were lauded for strengthening their charter-school-renewal processes. Among the renewal provisions, both states require schools to seek a renewal of their charter from their authorizer, while authorizers must support a renewal (or non-renewal) decision based on school performance and in a public meeting. The Hoosier State also received acclaim for clarifying, in statute, the relationship between a charter school and a service provider (a.k.a., an Education Management Organization). Coast to coast, the report finds that states’ charter laws are improving—an encouraging trend for a sector that now educates two million children every year. The laggards, however, still have their work cut out for them.

SOURCE: Todd Ziebarth, Measuring Up to the Model: A Ranking of State Charter School Laws (Washington, D.C.: National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, January 2014).

At less than an hour, this documentary, directed by Choice Media founder Bob Bowdon, provides a digestible overview of school choice and how it impacts families. The film’s slightly hokey structure is a transcontinental exploration of school choice by train. On its way from California to New York, the train stops in seven cities, using each to focus a different mechanism of school choice, of which a few were particularly compelling:

  • At our stop in Adelanto, California, we meet a group of parents who successfully employed that state’s “parent-trigger” law to close their failing neighborhood school and reopen it as a charter school.
  • In Kansas City, Missouri, we are introduced to that state’s transfer law, which allows students assigned to unaccredited school districts the right to transfer to schools in better ones. We meet a mother and daughter who wake up at 4:00 a.m. because of the long bus ride that her child takes to school each morning to attend a quality public school.
  • Our stop in Erie, Pennsylvania, introduces us to several students who have opted to attend cyber charter schools rather than traditional high schools, and we see that cyber school students have a surprising amount of contact with their teachers via telephone or video chat. 
  • In Topeka, Chicago, Cleveland, and Rochester, we learn about homeschooling, charter schools, vouchers, and private schools, respectively.

You can visit all the stops by attending one of the many screenings as part of the School Choice Week Whistle Stop Tour.

SOURCE: Choice Media, The Ticket (directed by Bob Bowdon).

Michelle and Brickman take over the podcast, discussing “controlled choice” (and declaring their allegiances to either #TeamMike or #TeamChecker), Sen. Lamar Alexander’s school-choice legislation, and teacher-protection laws in California. Amber reads into English-language-arts instruction.

Many proponents of private school choice take for granted that schools won't participate if government asks too much of them, especially if it demands that they be publicly accountable for student achievement. Were such school refusals to be widespread, the programs themselves could not serve many kids. But is this assumption justified?

A new Fordham Institute study provides empirical answers. Do regulations and accountability requirements deter private schools from participating in choice programs? How important are such requirements compared to other factors, such as voucher amounts? Are certain types of regulations stronger deterrents than others? Do certain types schools shy away from regulation more than others?

These are just some of the questions that David Stuit, author of the Fordham study, will discuss with a panel featuring John Kirtley of Step Up for Students (Florida), Larry Keough of the Catholic Conference of Ohio, and Paul Miller of the National Association of Independent Schools.