Charters & Choice

Last Friday, as I was about to board a plane, I read an article about an exciting initiative being launched in Washington, D.C.

During the flight, I drafted a long, gushing piece, praising Abigail Smith, the new deputy mayor for education, and arguing that D.C. was becoming the most important city for systemic reform after New Orleans.

Upon landing, I was on the verge of posting the piece when I saw another D.C. schools announcement.

This one took the wind from my sails.

I sadly shelved the paean.

Here’s the story: D.C. has recently undertaken two invaluable reforms that, when combined with the city’s other systemic features, place D.C. on the brink of becoming the urban school system of the future.

But a third announcement shows that some city leaders are still tragically wedded to the old, failed approach.

I’ll start with the good news, then the bad, and end with a recommendation for solidifying D.C.’s place as a national model for systemic reform.

The Mayor’s Office announced that unused district facilities will be made available to charters (with a preference for high performers) and that the city will establish a common enrollment system for district...

The number of high school graduates from Ohio’s charter schools has risen sharply in the past decade. In spring 2002, only 580 students graduated from a charter; in spring 2011 (the last year of available graduation data), 6,301 students graduated from a charter, only slightly below of graduates of Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Columbus school districts combined. 

Where do charter school grads go upon graduation? Not likely to college. Only around 1 in 10 charter school graduates head directly into an Ohio public university or college (two- or four-year), according to the Ohio Board of Regents. Note: The Regents’ data do not account for high school graduates who attend an out-of-state, private, or for-profit college—thus, underreporting the number of college-bound grads.

For graduates of e-school charters, a measly 9 percent made the plunge into college, while for graduates of brick-and-mortar charters, it’s 11 percent. There is, however, considerable variation across the charters. As might be expected, Ohio’s few high-performing high school charters had a higher percentage of grads go off to college. For example, 48 percent of Dayton Early College Academy’s (DECA) and 50 percent of Toledo School for the Arts’ graduates enrolled directly into an Ohio college. On the flip...

The best thing one can say about Illinois’s new moratorium on virtual charter schools is that it could have been worse. The folks at the Illinois Network of Charter Schools talked lawmakers down from a three-year ban on any new charter with “virtual-schooling components” to a one-year moratorium on new online schools outside of Chicago. The bill the governor signed last week also demands policy recommendations from the state’s charter school commission that could lead to quality and cost-efficient online learning.

Virtual charter school
Did lawmakers want a moratorium to "better understand the effects" of virtual schooling, or was it a power grab?
Photo by wader

But did lawmakers want a moratorium to better understand the effects of virtual schooling, as some explained, or was this the result of a power grab by influential suburban school districts worried about the prospect of losing students to charters they never before had to fear?

The objection to a single virtual charter application from eighteen Chicagoland districts points to...

After a sandstorm of education bills swept through the last few weeks of the Lone Star State's eighty-third legislative session, the dust cleared to reveal the passage of five major education bills:

  1. HB 5 rolls back the number of required end-of-course exams from fifteen to five and creates two high school diploma tracks
  2. SB 2 expands the state’s charter school system, increasing the state cap on charter school contracts from 215 to 305 over the next six years
  3. HB 866 will allow students in grades 3–8 who score well in either the third or fifth grade to be excused from certain standardized tests (this one requires federal approval)
  4. HB 2836 limits the number of “benchmark” exams districts can administer in grades 3–8 and orders that the state’s curricular standards be studied by a mandated commission
  5. HB 1926 requires that all districts, beginning in middle school, offer students the option of taking online courses (setting the limit at three per student, per year) and opens the virtual-education market to nonprofits and private companies, to be authorized by the Texas Education Agency

The big battle that was won: As Greg Richmond of NACSA reports, SB 2 is...

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed legislation last week that places a one-year moratorium on new virtual charter schools outside Chicago and directs a state commission to study the effects and costs of virtual charters. These actions were clearly responses to suburban districts’ angst over the growing presence of K12 Inc. Relatedly, we’re sure that local bookstores favor blocking Amazon.com so that we might “better evaluate and understand” its impact. Is that next up?

Now in its fifth year, Menlo Park Academy in Cleveland—Ohio’s only charter school exclusively serving gifted children—is a haven for over 300 students, drawing K–8 youngsters from forty school districts in and beyond the Cleveland metro area. It's also the subject of a profile by award-winning journalist Ellen Belcher. To read more, visit the Ohio Gadfly Daily.

And now, from Nevada, a riddle about poor school-funding policy: What do you get when you add the third-largest fraction of English-language learner (ELL) students in the nation (a full fifth of Nevada’s 2010–11 student population) to a school-funding formula that doesn’t allot districts any extra state cash to educate said youngsters? Answer: Only 29 percent of the state’s ELL students in the graduating class...

When Jessica Hockett and I embarked upon the Fordham-Hoover study that gave rise to our recent book Exam Schools, we predicted that the touchiest issue in the realm of selective-admission public schools would turn out to be how, exactly, they choose their pupils.

The selective-admission quandary
Private education as we have known it is on its way out.
Photo by scui3asteveo

We were right. This also turned out to be the aspect of these schools that was hardest for outsiders to get a handle on. In some cases, the admissions process is truly Byzantine. In some, it’s partly or totally out of the hands of the school itself. It takes many different forms, from strict adherence to rank-ordered scores on a single test to multi-dimensional and holistic evaluations akin to those practiced by selective private colleges.

As I talk with more people who are smack in the middle of this, it’s becoming clear to me that—to put it bluntly—you’re damned if you do...

FOREWORD

Like a rose in an unkempt garden, Menlo Park Academy stands out among Ohio’s hodgepodge of charter schools. First and foremost, Menlo excels academically—it was one of 30 charters in Ohio that earned an “Excellent” (A) or above state academic rating in 2011-12. (This, out of 302 rated charter schools.) Second, Menlo, which enrolls 300 or so students, is a regional school, drawing K-8 students from 40 school districts in and beyond the Cleveland metro area. And, Menlo is Ohio’s only charter school dedicated to educating gifted students.

Menlo’s uniqueness, together with Fordham’s long-standing interest in gifted and talented students, quickly attracted our attention. We’ve visited the school on two occasions, once with Fordham’s president Checker Finn. During these visits we learned much from Menlo’s leaders, teachers, parents and students about how the school has grown, as well as its current and future challenges. These discussions whetted our appetite to dig deeper—to learn more about Menlo’s story, its people, and how it goes about educating gifted students. We asked Ellen Belcher, an award-winning journalist formerly of the Dayton Daily News, to report the Menlo Park story and what she uncovered made us even more excited about the work...

Charter schools have captured nearly half of the public school market in Washington, D.C., but they have struggled to find suitable buildings to carry out their mission. That changed this week when D.C. mayor Vincent C. Gray announced that the District would give charter schools the chance to lease as many as sixteen former or soon-to-be-closed public school buildings. Charter advocates were pleased.

This move was long overdue. Charters have been attracting more and more of the public school market share in D.C. every year, but they have been grasping for adequate space to accommodate their burgeoning enrollments. Arguably, the D.C. charter sector would be even larger today if the city hadn’t hoarded vacant properties, prompting even the best charters to scrounge for makeshift facilities and place students on waitlists due to lack of space.

These challenges are familiar to charter schools in most cities. Despite the surge in charter school enrollments and the support the sector receives from both political parties, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has documented that charters still commonly rent or own building space that is much smaller than that occupied by their traditional public school peers or that lack kitchens, gymnasiums,...

Following yesterday’s release of #10–#6, here are my top five takeaways from my Q&A sessions with USED, PARCC, and Smarter Balanced (most important is #1).

5.   The P is for prudence

The most noticeable aspect of PARCC’s response was its the-dog-that-didn’t-bark-ness. I expected, but didn’t get, more discussion of big successes to date.

Maybe they have gobs to peacock about but chose not to, wanting later results to speak for themselves (more on that in #4). People I trust say they are on the way to getting content, alignment, and rigor right. Maybe my questions didn’t set them up to brag about that stuff?

Or maybe my reaction is just a matter of relativity. When compared to SB’s earnest, 3,000-word, front-of-the-classroom response, heck, almost anything would’ve paled.

But maybe my affection for PARCC’s board and team has softened me. A cynic might say PARCC’s limited discussion of wins is a red flag.

I don’t find anything worrisome in PARCC’s response, so I won’t speculate. So I’ll say this: PARCC’s modest response about past activities probably won’t change too many Insiders’ right-track/wrong-track vote in either direction.

4.   Confidence about the...

Private education as we have known it is on its way out, at both the K–12 and postsecondary levels. At the very least, it's headed for dramatic shrinkage, save for a handful of places and circumstances, to be replaced by a very different set of institutional, governance, financing, and education-delivery mechanisms.

The end of private education
Private education as we have known it is on its way out.
Photo by Jim Young/Reuters

Consider today's realities. Private K–12 enrollments are shrinking—by almost 13 percent from 2000 to 2010. Catholic schools are closing right and left. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia, for example, announced in January that forty-four of its 156 elementary schools will cease operations next month. (A few later won reprieves.) In addition, many independent schools (day schools and especially boarding schools) are having trouble filling their seats—at least, filling them with their customary clientele of tuition-paying American students. Traditional nonprofit private colleges are also challenged to fill their classroom seats and dorms, a...

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