Charters & Choice

The Justice Department has taken school-voucher policy to unstable ground. Last month, three agency attorneys sent a letter to Wisconsin officials declaring that the Badger State hasn’t done enough to protect the rights of students with disabilities who participate in voucher programs in Milwaukee and Racine. But the prescription contained within that letter would effectively entangle religious schools in the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), from which they have largely been exempted.

The trouble started two years ago, when the American Civil Liberties Union and Disability Rights Wisconsin complained to the Justice Department that private schools in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program were violating the ADA. They argued that the schools were failing to accommodate disabled students, discouraging some from attending and improperly expelling others. (NB: These groups did not make these claims under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (i.e., special education); private schools are clearly exempt from its requirements.)

The Justice Department didn’t determine whether Milwaukee’s private schools had violated the ADA, but its civil-rights attorneys did tell the Wisconsin schools superintendent, Tony Evers, that he “must do more to enforce the federal statutory and regulatory requirements that govern the treatment of students with...

Mike is usually the “glass-half-full” guy around Fordham, while I'm Gloomy Gus. On the matter of parent triggers, however, our roles seem to have reversed. He doesn't think the parent-trigger mechanism will amount to much—and comes mighty close to suggesting that we might as well therefore give up on it. He puts his faith instead in what he calls “school choice,” by which he means more charters, more vouchers, more digital options, etc.

Why so bleak about parent triggers?
My parent-trigger glass isn't more than half full, but Mike should return to the spigot
Photo by Worapol Sittiphaet

Of course we should have more of all of those—provided they're accompanied by suitable quality control and customer-information strategies. But why so bleak about parent triggers? Well, Mike explains, they'll get tangled up in lawsuits—but so does every single one of his preferred options; just this month, for example, the Louisiana supreme court struck down the Bayou State's new voucher program. Charters get litigated everywhere. So do virtual schools.

Then he says the parent trigger is really a school-turnaround...

GadflyWhen a Michigan House committee approved a measure that would allow students to skip Algebra 2 if they instead take a technical-education course, the Wolverine State became the latest to question the necessity of that much-debated high school course. Last month, Florida created two paths to a high school diploma, one of which excludes Algebra 2 altogether. The arguments in favor of such moves are persuasive—but what will this mean for Common Core, which requires all students to meet math objectives that include the substance of Algebra 2? This is certainly a matter to watch.

The UFT hosted a veritable panderpalooza last weekend, featuring five Democratic candidates for mayor of New York City taking turns praising the union and blasting charter schools in a shameless effort to win the union’s support. Dennis Walcott, the city’s schools chancellor, announced that he was “appalled” at their remarks. Still, while Gadfly finds such events distasteful, he cannot claim to be surprised when New York politicians resume their traditional habits.

Two excellent Wall...

It’s hard not to sympathize with the impulse behind the parent trigger. Here’s a mechanism that empowers disadvantaged parents to force speedy and transformative change on schools long considered dysfunctional. It upends the stasis that pervades so many urban districts: the veto power that teachers unions and other adult interests hold over all decisions; the culture of low expectations that blames social factors (and the parents themselves) for poor student achievement; the slow pace of reform that subjects yet another generation of students to failure while the system struggles to get its act together.

The parent trigger may end up falling flat
It's hard not to sympathize with the parent trigger, but it may end up falling flat.

For these reasons and more, it’s worth experimenting with the parent trigger. But I strongly suspect that the experiment will fall flat, at least most of the time and at least when it comes to turning around failing schools and/or forcing significant reform on the part of failing school districts. Three factors come...

Relinquishment is based on three principles: (1) educators should operate schools, (2) families should choose amongst these schools, and (3) government should hold schools accountable for performance and equity.

Outside of these three principles, I hold few ironclad beliefs on education. Yet in conversation, I find that others attribute principles to Relinquishment that I don’t hold. This probably stems from a lack of clear communication on my part, so let me provide additional clarity:

Relinquishment is not anti-union

Relinquishment is a reaction against management, not labor. Admittedly, I disagree with certain policies put forth by unions and their members, but individuals should possess the right to collectively bargain with their employers. Relinquishment only posits that the government should not be a party to the bargain; rather, the bargaining parties should be union and school operator. From here, results will dictate the future of unions. If unionized schools thrive, unions themselves will also thrive. I do understand that, from an organizing standpoint, unionizing decentralized charter schools will be more difficult than signing a singular collective bargaining contract with the district—but I do not believe this issue should trump the more salient issue of academic performance.

Relinquishment assumes equity in access is...

This revealing back-and-forth with the United States Department of Education is the third and final installment in our testing-consortia series.

“The Department,” like any hulking, beltway-bound federal agency, can seem like a cold, faceless leviathan—this imposing force, issuing impenetrable regulations from a utilitarian, vaguely Soviet, city block–sized building in the shadow of the Capitol.

But those who interact with it regularly, especially those of us fortunate enough to have worked there, know that it is made up of hundreds and hundreds of very fine people.

During my tenure there, I found both the career staff and the political appointees to be knowledgeable public servants and excellent colleagues. While working for a state department of education, I found the Department’s team to be thoughtful, accessible, and accommodating. And in my loyal-opposition think-tank stints, during which I sometimes find myself poking and prodding the Department, they’ve been patient, respectful, but understandably steely adversaries.

I’m appreciative that they took the time to answer these questions so thoroughly, and I’m flabbergasted that they did so at—in terms of agency timelines—Guinness-Book speed.

What would the U.S. Department of Education (ED) like people to know about the testing consortia?

The consortia are designing the next generation...

The Dayton Early College Academy (DECA) is Dayton’s highest performing high school (district or charter). The school is authorized by the Dayton Public Schools and is widely supported across the Dayton region. It partners not only with the Dayton Public Schools but the University of Dayton, Sinclair Community College, and numerous local businesses and philanthropic groups. In fact, when the school launched an elementary campus at the start of this school year more than 300 volunteers worked to clean the school, paint walls, and fix up the 85-year-old-building that now houses DECA prep. These volunteers included inmates from the county jail who volunteered to help.

DECA delivers and Dayton knows it. The numbers help tell the story:

*390 Enrollment

*78.4 Percent economically disadvantaged

*87.9 Percent non-white

*100 Percent of students Percent in Math and Reading on the 10th grade Ohio Graduation Test.

*100 Percent of its graduates (and graduation rate is over 95 percent) are admitted to college and 87 percent make it to their sophomore year.

DECA is a Bronze Medal winner from U.S. News & World Report in its annual ranking of America's Best High Schools in 2012 and 2009. And has been studied widely by, among others, Fordham, Harvard, Great...

The Louisiana State Supreme Court, in a lopsided 6–1 decision, declared that Governor Jindal and the Legislature illegally diverted money from public schools to fund the state’s voucher expansion. In its apolitical decision, the court said, “we will not per se address the efficacy of the school voucher or similar education programs.” The decision was not on vouchers as a matter of public policy but rather on the constitutionality of how the new vouchers are funded.

The Louisiana school voucher funding decision
The decision was not on vouchers but on the constitutionality of how those vouchers are funded
Photo by Joe Gratz

The legislation in question, Act 2, intended to fund student vouchers with the Louisiana “Minimum Foundation Program” (MFP). But the Louisiana Constitution of 1974 is clear concerning the MFP: It is a funding formula that “shall be used to determine the cost of a minimum foundation program of education in all public elementary and secondary schools as well as to equitably allocate the funds to parish and city...

After twenty years of charter schooling, the research literature is voluminous, but much of it is contradictory and confusing—not to mention politically motivated. With this in mind, Columbia University professor Priscilla Wohlstetter and her colleagues set out to separate the empirical wheat from the ideological chaff and review more than a decade of charter school literature to show how charters have progressed. While the authors can, through their synthesis of high-quality studies, tell us much about accountability (more schools close due to mismanagement than from their failure in the marketplace) and the unintended consequences of charters (re-segregation, but not widespread, and not unanticipated), the book is important especially for telling readers what we still don’t know about the charter sector. Consider the key issue of performance: Most charter research analyzes student achievement, but it generally consists of student snapshots and is devoid of the large-scale, random-control studies that are the gold standard. As a result, we’re left with contradictory evidence on how well charter students perform and inconclusive findings on how various factors like autonomy affect school outcomes. But by identifying this gap of knowledge, the authors map out new possibilities for research: How are charters using their autonomy, and...

GadflyOur Gadfly readers won’t be surprised that in India, where a quarter or more public school teachers are absent at any given time, the demand for quality education among the poor has created a thriving market of private schools. Some think tanks, such as the Economist-profiled Centre for Civil Society, and provincial governments are running voucher experiments—with encouraging results. But as the Economist points out, the Indian government, which has proven to be innovative in some areas like health care, remains mulish in its opposition to private schools, designing rules apparently aimed at their eradication. For the sake of their nation’s children, we urge them to reevaluate.

A new NCTQ study finds that during the Great Recession, forty of the fifty largest school districts froze or cut teacher pay at least once between 2007 and 2012. Still and all, teacher pay did rise, if only slightly, over that five year period. The trends were “on par with almost all of the comparable professions” they assessed. Fascinatingly, Chicago clocked in with the highest pay raises (6.5 percent).

Christine Quinn, a front-runner...

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