Charters & Choice

The charter crossroads edition

On this week’s podcast, Alyssa Schwenk talks to Checker Finn and Brandon Wright about their new book, written with Bruno Manno, Charter Schools at the Crossroads. On the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines the effects of content-intensive professional development for teachers. 

Amber's Research Minute

Michael S. Garet, Jessica B. Heppen, Kirk Walters, Julia Parkinson, Toni M. Smith, Mengli Song, Rachel Garrett, Rui Yang, Geoffrey D. Borman, and Thomas E. Wei, "Focusing on Mathematical Knowledge: The Impact of Content-Intensive Teacher Professional Development," U.S. Department of Education (September 2016). 

Over the past quarter-century, charter schools have gone from an upstart education experiment to a prominent, promising, and disruptive innovation in K–12 education. Indeed, few observers present at the creation of the first charter schools could have predicted how rapidly this movement would spread or how thoroughly it would come to dominate the education-reform agenda. In Charter Schools at the Crossroads, authors Chester E. Finn, Jr., Bruno V. Manno, and Brandon L. Wright take stock of what chartering has (and hasn’t) accomplished thus far, how to address its present challenges, and what an ambitious and boldly different course for the next twenty-five years would look like. 

From the role of philanthropy to the rise of no-excuses charter schools, they frankly examine the positive and negative consequences of policies and programs, and push sector leaders to do more, do better, and do it differently. They counter the often-oversimplified narrative of the movement’s origins, showing how multiple agendas and intentions led to a cacophony of results. And they address chartering’s many current dilemmas, including the roles of authorizers and operators, challenges in facilities and funding, and the balance between freedom and regulation. Informative and provocative, this book shows the tremendous work accomplished...

The Ohio Department of Education (ODE) recently released the results of its revised sponsor evaluation, including new ratings for all of the state’s charter-school sponsors. Called “authorizers” in most other states, sponsors are the entities responsible for monitoring and oversight of charter schools. Under the current rating system, sponsors are evaluated in three areas—compliance, quality practice, and school academic outcomes—and receive overall ratings of “Exemplary,” “Effective,” “Ineffective,” or “Poor.” Of the sixty-five Buckeye State sponsors evaluated, five were rated “Effective,” thirty-nine “Ineffective,” and twenty-one “Poor.” Incentives are built into the system for sponsors rated “Effective” or “Exemplary” (for instance, only having to be evaluated on the quality practice component every three years); however, sponsors rated “Ineffective” are prohibited from sponsoring new schools, and sponsors rated “Poor” have their sponsorship revoked.

Number of charter schools by sponsor rating

Evaluating sponsors is a key step in the direction of accountability and quality control, especially in Ohio, where the charter sector has been beset with performance challenges. Indeed, the point of implementing the evaluation was two-fold. First, the existence of the evaluation system and its...

Charter Schools at Twenty-Five: Humdrum or Revolutionary?

Charter Schools at Twenty-Five: Humdrum or Revolutionary?

It’s been twenty-five years since Minnesota introduced chartering to America. In that time, the charter sector has gone from a disruptive innovation to the source of school choice for more than three million kids in over forty states. As we celebrate chartering’s silver anniversary, prominent thinkers are reflecting on what has been accomplished, what has been learned, and what the future may hold.    

Richard Whitmire, author of the recently published The Founders: Inside the Revolution to Invent (and Reinvent) America’s Best Charter Schools, and Chester E. Finn, Jr., co-author of the forthcoming Charter Schools at the Crossroads: Predicaments, Paradoxes, Possibilities, came together for a lively, invigorating discussion of these key questions on October 12. What features have allowed some charter networks to produce breakthrough results while others have fallen short? How can we bring their success to scale and serve even more needy and deserving students? Is the success of the “no-excuses” model blinding us to other areas that might benefit from chartering, such as schools for high achievers, schools for the middle class, and schools focused on career and technical education? And will the foes of charter schools ever relent?

Continue the conversation online with @educationgadfly and @The74 at #ChartersAt25


Chester E. Finn, Jr. 
Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus
Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Richard Whitmire
Education Author


Ohio Charter Accountability Takes Big Leap Forward with First Sponsor Evaluation Ratings

Today the Ohio Department of Education released results for the state’s new comprehensive sponsor evaluation system. The ratings resulted in 5 sponsors being deemed effective, 39 ineffective, and 21 poor. No sponsors were rated exemplary.

“Completion of the first sponsor performance review is a critical step forward in Ohio’s goal to improve its charter sector,” said Chad L. Aldis, Vice President for Ohio Policy and Advocacy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. “Sponsors provide critical oversight for charters schools, determining when to intervene, non-renew, or close schools—and just as importantly, when and where to allow charters to open in the first place. Given this tremendous responsibility, they are essential to our accountability system.”

Ohio’s sponsor evaluation system—initially put in place by HB 555—was revised last fall by a Department task force. The evaluations grade sponsors on three equally weighted categories: compliance—how well they follow applicable rules and laws and ensure their sponsored schools do the same; quality practices—whether they are adhering to general principles of quality authorizing; and academic performance—how well their schools performed on a variety of report card metrics.

“The Department of Education deserves...

Tens of thousands of individuals across the United States volunteer their time, energy, and expertise as members of charter school boards. Yet as the charter sector has grown, we’ve learned remarkably little about these individuals who make key operational decisions about their schools and have legal and moral responsibilities for the education of children in their communities.

Fordham’s latest study, Charter School Boards in the Nation’s Capital, is one of the first attempts to use quantitative survey data to explore the relationship between charter boards and school quality. Authors Juliet Squire and Allison Crean Davis of Bellwether Education Partners queried charter school board members in Washington, D.C.—a city with one of the highest percentage of public charter school students in the nation—to determine (a) who serves on District charter boards and (b) which board practices are associated with school quality.

Key findings include:

  • Charter school board members in D.C. tend to be affluent, highly educated individuals with liberal or moderate political leanings. Three-quarters of them have served fewer than four years on their board. A slight majority is white, and one-third are African American. They are fairly evenly distributed by age and have a wide range of
  • ...

Twenty-five years into the American charter school movement there remains little research on the impact of charter authorizers, yet these entities are responsible for key decisions in the lives of charter schools, including whether they can open, and when they must close.

A new policy brief from Tulane University’s Education Research Alliance seeks to shed some light on authorizer impact in post-Katrina New Orleans, specifically does the process by which applications are reviewed help to produce effective charter schools? And after those schools have been initially authorized, does that process also shed light on which types of charter schools get renewed?

It merits repeating that the authorizing environment in New Orleans was unlike anywhere else in the country: Louisiana had given control of almost all New Orleans public schools to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) and the Recovery School District (RSD). Independent review of charter applications was mandated in state law, and tons of organizations applied to open new charters.

To facilitate the application process, BESE hired the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA). NACSA reviewed and rated applications, and in most cases BESE followed those recommendations. As the authors point out, NACSA is...

Politicians are wise to pay attention to public opinion data, but they are also responsible for crafting sound policies based on research and evidence. So what are they supposed to do when these two goods conflict?  

Anya Kamenetz at NPR was the first to highlight the contradiction between newly released poll results from PDK International and a variety of research related to school closures (“Americans Oppose School Closures, But Research Suggests They're Not A Bad Idea”). The PDK survey revealed that 84 percent of Americans believe that failing schools should be kept open and improved rather than closed. Sixty-two percent said that if a failing public school is kept open, the best approach to improvement is to replace its faculty and administration instead of increasing spending on the same team. In other words, the majority of Americans are firmly committed to their community schools—just not the people working in them.

These findings shouldn’t come as a huge surprise (as my colleague Robert Pondiscio pointed out here). No one wants to see a school closed, no matter how persistently underperforming. For many communities, schools offer not just an education, but a place...

Trump, Choice, and Discipline

On this week’s podcast, Robert Pondiscio, Brandon Wright, and David Griffith discuss Donald Trump’s school choice proposal and the national debate over school discipline. During the research minute, Amber Northern examines the effect of the charter school authorization process on school quality.

Amber's Research Minute

Whitney Bross and Douglas N. Harris, "The Ultimate Choice: How Charter Authorizers Approve and Renew Schools in Post-Katrina New Orleans," Education Research Alliance (September 2016).


Today, the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) announced that it would release the $71 million Charter School Program (CSP) grant awarded to Ohio last September, but with additional restrictions attached. The letter outlines "high-risk" special conditions for how Ohio's award can be spent. This includes excluding virtual charter schools, placing extra requirements on subgrants to dropout recovery charter schools, and a promise that USDOE will carefully monitor and ensure that Ohio completes its authorizer evaluations on time.

The federal CSP program dates back to 1994, and has been used to seed new charter schools across the U.S. as well as enable top-performing charter networks to grow and expand. In recent years, the CSP program has drawn broad bi-partisan support in Congress.

Ohio’s grant was put on hold shortly after it was announced, as the USDOE considered additional safeguards on how the funds would be spent. The Ohio Department of Education (ODE) revised its application in January 2016 to further describe the state’s charter accountability infrastructure. More recently, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Paolo DeMaria aggressively moved forward with charter sponsor evaluations—a key part of the state’s CSP application—despite attempts to delay them.

“We’re extremely pleased that the USDOE, after a...