Charters & Choice

GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump recently visited Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy, a charter school educating predominately minority and low-income children. I write not to comment on Mr. Trump’s candidacy, his thoughts on education policy, or even Ohio’s charter schools. Rather, this is my takeaway from the whole brouhaha—and be forewarned, it’s a wonky one: Ohio needs to return to a multi-year value-added measure.

Here’s why. Charter critics, media, and even a respected education reform group were quick to label Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy a “failure.” They relied on the school’s 2014–15 school report cards, which indeed showed low A–F grades. One glaring rating was the school’s F on Ohio’s value-added measure—not good at face value, because the measure is generally uncorrelated with student demographics and is therefore a metric that high-poverty schools can and do succeed on. (Value added gauges growth over time, regardless of students’ prior achievement.)

Keep in mind, however, that Ohio is presently basing value-added rating on one year of data—and those ratings can swing quite dramatically from year to year. Consider, for example, that Toledo Public Schools received an A rating on value added in 2013-14....

The Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to use “another indicator of student success or school quality,” in addition to test scores and graduation rates, when determining school grades. This is in line with the commonsensical notion that achievement in reading, writing, and math, while an important measure, surely doesn’t encapsulate the whole of what we want schools to accomplish for our young people. Reformers and traditional education groups alike have enthusiastically sought to encourage schools to focus more on “non-cognitive” attributes like grit or perseverance, or social and emotional learning, or long-term outcomes like college completion.

We at Fordham wondered whether charter schools might have something to teach the states about finding well-rounded indicators of school quality. After all, when charter schools first entered the scene in the pre-No Child Left Behind era, the notion was that their “charters” would identify student outcomes to be achieved that would match the mission and character of each individual school. Test scores might play a role, but they surely wouldn’t be the only measure.

As the head of Fordham’s authorizing shop in Dayton, I set out to determine which indicators the best charter school authorizers in the nation were using—measures that transcended...

June 4 marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of Minnesota's charter school law, the nation's first. In 1990, charter pioneer Ted Kolderie foresaw that chartering would "introduce the dynamics of choice, competition, and innovation into America's public school system, while at the same time ensuring that new schools serve broad public purposes."

A quarter-century later, forty-three states and the District of Columbia have passed such laws, and 6,800 charter schools educate almost three million children. Remarkably, charters account for the entire enrollment growth in American public education since 2006. District schools actually lost students during this time, as did some private schools.

Thus far, the mission that chartering has carried out with greatest success and acclaim has been to place tens of thousands of disadvantaged children on a path to college and upward mobility. In fact, charters today primarily serve low-income children of color—the kids who typically fare worst in big-district systems. For reasons of both equity and politics, many state charter laws give priority to schools that focus on such students, while some confine chartering to core cities.

University of Michigan economist Susan Dynarski put it this way: "In urban areas, where students are overwhelmingly low-achieving, poor, and nonwhite, charter schools...

It is not reasonable to expect research to resolve all issues or to erase all differences of opinion. We can but supply some information that we think reliable, and we will continue in the future to supply more. But it is up to the American people to decide what to do. The better their information, the wiser will be their decisions.

So wrote my colleague Chester Finn in his introduction to a compendium of research findings about teaching and learning.

The book was called What Works, and it was published in March.

March of 1986.

In the thirty years since, America has gone through several waves of reform, but we’re still talking about establishing research-based practices in our schools. Figuring out how to do this better is another way that reformers and funders might improve our education system without overhauling laws and regulations. (I’ve identified other tactics, besides policy change, for reforming our schools, namely building a new system via charters or education savings accounts; spurring disruptive innovations that target students, parents, or teachers directly; and investing in leadership.)

No, it’s not easy. Policy makers can exhort educators to adopt “evidence-based practices,”...

There are emerging signs, as I’ve written, that Ohio’s charter law overhaul (HB 2) is working. Significant numbers of poorly performing schools were closed last year, and Ohio’s charter school opening rate has slowed to an unprecedented crawl—both of which serve as evidence that the reforms are influencing sponsor behavior. This tightening of the sector on both ends, while painful for advocates, is absolutely necessary to improve quality overall and tame Ohio charters’ undeniably poor reputation.

It may seem odd that some Ohio charter school advocates are touting the sector’s contraction or this year’s stunted growth (an all-time low of eight new schools). It’s a form of cognitive dissonance shared by those of us who ardently support a family’s right to choose a school but are tired of watching the sector strain under the weight of its own terrible reputation and inflict collateral damage on those high-performing, achievement-gap-closing charter schools that first drew us to the cause.

Cognitive dissonance occurs when reality doesn’t sync up with theory, and when evidence points to something not working as well as the lofty idea of it. For instance, Ohio is a far different place than...

A recent American Enterprise Institute study dispels myths about charter schools by comparing them to nearby district schools in a few novel ways.

Author Nat Malkus gathered data on school type, locale, enrollment, proficiency, discipline rates, demographics, and the number of English language learners and special education students they serve. Sources included the National Center for Education Statistics, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, and EDfacts.

Instead of looking at large groups of charter and districts schools across the country or a state, as charter opponents are wont to do, Malkus compares each charter school to five neighboring district schools that a given charter student might otherwise attend. Obviously, this makes for much more of an apples-to-apples comparison.

A recurring theme throughout virtually all of Malkus’s analyses is the great amount of variance between charter schools. He compares randomly selected district schools, which he terms “reference schools,” to five neighboring district schools, just as he did with the charters. Through the study’s various lenses—school discipline, student enrollment, achievement, or something else—charter schools are repeatedly shown to differ more from one another than district schools do. (There is also more variance between charters than between charter schools and their...

Private School Choice: How Do Programs Nationwide Stack Up?

Private School Choice: How Do Programs Nationwide Stack up?

Educational choice is a strategy to provide children with opportunities to receive the education that works best for them. In recent years, private-school-choice programs have blossomed, doubling (since 2010) both the number of such initiatives and the number of children benefiting from them.

But how well designed are they when it comes to student eligibility, scholarship amounts and enrollment growth, and transparency and accountability? The American Federation for Children (AFC) and the AFC Growth Fund set out to answer those questions by analyzing and ranking all active general-education, private-school-choice programs in the country. Their report will reveal whether any private-school-choice program checks all the boxes—and which ones are falling short.  

Continue the conversation on Twitter with @educationgadfly and @SchoolChoiceNow at #RankingChoices.

*Click here to download AFC's report card*

*Click here to download the presentation slides*


Michael Petrilli
President, Thomas B. Fordham Institute


   Whitney Marcavage
   Policy Director, American Federation for Children
   Robert Behning
   Indiana State Representative
   Max Eden
   Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute
   Derrell Bradford

   Executive Vice President, 50CAN 
   Executive Director, NYCAN


Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther is passionately outspoken about Columbus City Schools. He is an alumnus of the district, and his first experience as an elected official came as a member of its board of education. He has regularly praised Columbus City Schools and publicly bemoaned those who have spoken negatively about them. "I was tired of listening to people talk poorly about Columbus schools," Ginther said in a 2011 interview with ThisWeek Community News, explaining why he initially ran for school board. "As a matter of fact, I had a great experience in Columbus City Schools."

So strong is his belief in the district that Ginther is a major proponent of the levy this November that would authorize a 18 percent tax increase on residents to provide an influx of cash to Columbus City Schools.

However, when facing the decision of where to send his own daughter for kindergarten, Ginther chose a different path than the one he acclaims for the rest of the city's children. It is Ginther’s long-term support of Columbus City Schools that made last week’s announcement both surprising and noteworthy. The family’s assigned district school is a shining star that has been ranked as...

A new policy paper from the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) explores how state education agencies (SEAs) can take advantage of their unique position to foster improved district-charter collaboration.

The authors lament, as did we in a recent report, that district and charter leaders are too often tearing chunks out of one another rather than finding ways to work together. Whether the endgame should be an all-charter system, as in New Orleans, or some kind of side-by-side system, as in Washington, D.C., most cities will have to find a working balance between the two sectors.

The paper makes a series of policy recommendations for how SEAs could facilitate this balance and act on the increased authority granted to them by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). They could, for example, use their unique position to tie financial and accountability incentives to collaboration efforts, provide cover for school districts in places where local politics are toxic, and remove state legal impediments to district-charter collaboration. ESSA also gives states the more flexibility to allot funding, design accountability systems, and adopt other constructive policies (like unified enrollment or facilities sharing) that promote district-charter collaboration.

The authors then point to examples like Florida’s...

Dear Mark and Priscilla,

Apologies for again interrupting your summer peace, but my respected friend Marc Tucker—in his open letter to you taking issue with my earlier missive—sorely misinterpreted or misstated one of my central points. I must at least try to set the record straight (I’ll also take the liberty of demurring from Marc’s well-intended advice in a couple of other areas).

First, to correct the record: Marc has me “urg[ing] you [and Chan Zuckerberg] to provide scholarships, supplemental learning opportunities, and great summer programs for poor kids from low-income communities.”

Wrong, wrong, and wrong. Marc’s a smart guy who is deeply informed about many things and often right about them. But he should have read my piece more closely, Common Core-style. Here’s what I wrote:

If a philanthropist wants simply to “do good” in the education space, none of this matters. It’s a no-brainer to underwrite a building, a professorship, a scholarship, a summer program, a lecture series, a roomful of laptops, a field trip, or a gala recognition dinner. You can get thanked, praised, photographed, tweeted about, or liked on Facebook…. All those sorts of things are easy and generally without controversy, much less rancor.

But it wasn’t—and...