Charters & Choice

“The Proper Perspective” is a discussion between Jamie Davies O’Leary, senior Ohio policy analyst for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, and Stephen Dyer, education policy fellow at Innovation Ohio. Interested in many of the same data points and research questions, they decided to share some of this exchange more publicly, helping both to illuminate trends in Ohio public education and formulate policy recommendations through their insights. This is the third edition of the series. The first can be found here, the second here.

Ohio won a $71 million federal Charter School Program (CSP) grant last fall, but after backlash about the original grant application (which described Ohio as a beacon of charter oversight and overstated the performance of the charter sector), the U.S. Department of Education put a hold on the money. Ohio’s latest response to the feds was on January 29. Jamie and Steve have both been writing on the topic recently and...

In September, Ohio was awarded a federal Charter School Program (CSP) grant, winning the largest slice of the pie among eight winning states ($71 million). Soon after, following on the heels of last summer’s charter school sponsor evaluation scandal at the Ohio Department of Education, there was significant backlash and a hold placed on the funds. Concerns stemmed from the fact that the grant application described Ohio as a “beacon of charter oversight” (before the state passed landmark legislation in October promising to make that a reality) and overstated the performance of its charter sector.

As part of the effort to salvage the grant, the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) submitted revised data on charter school performance. Applying a more rigorous definition of failure[1] yielded fifty-seven low-performing schools, in contrast to the six listed in Ohio’s initial application last July.[2] Given these discrepancies, it’s appropriate that the feds are conducting their due diligence in asking ODE to update its application and demonstrate that it can manage the funds effectively. Meanwhile, those of us observing the ongoing debate from the sidelines should hope...

A new study from the University of Arkansas examines the relationship between Milwaukee’s citywide school voucher program and students’ criminal behavior.

Controlling for factors such as family income, parental education, and the presence of two parents in the home, the authors used data from Wisconsin court records to compare the criminal behavior of voucher students with non-voucher students. The groups, comprising some two thousand students, were enrolled in eighth or ninth grade in 2006 as part of Milwaukee’s Parental Choice Program (MPCP) and the Milwaukee Public School (MPS) system.

The study first analyzed only pupils who were enrolled in MPCP and MPS in 2006, regardless of how long they stayed in the program, and found no statistically significant results. Next, the researchers measured the effects of a “full dose” of voucher program treatment (i.e., students who were enrolled in 2006 and stayed through the twelfth grade). These students were found to be 5–7 percent less likely to commit a misdemeanor, 2–3 percent less likely to commit a felony, and 5–12 percent less likely to be accused of any crime as young adults. (Participants were between twenty-two and twenty-five years old at the time the data were analyzed.) In other words,...

For the past few years, Russ Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution has ranked the nation’s hundred largest school districts based on the amount of school choice they give to families and the degree to which they promote competition between schools. In many ways, these rankings are similar to Fordham’s own choice-friendly cities list, though the unit of analysis and metric differ somewhat. As in prior years, five of Brookings’s thirteen indicators concern the availability, accessibility, comparability, clarity, and relevance of information about school performance—a far heavier emphasis than one finds in Fordham’s metric. The other eight indicators deal with topics such as school closure, transportation, and the existence of a common application for district schools, several of which are common to both reports.

Though not one of the nation’s largest districts, the Recovery School District in New Orleans is again included in the Brookings rankings because of its unique status within the school choice movement. Once again, it ranks first overall. Yet in the report accompanying this year’s rankings, Whitehurst argues that because of its unique circumstances, New Orleans isn’t a realistic model for other districts. He points instead to Denver, now listed second overall and first among large school...

Fordham Ohio’s latest report – Quality in Adversity: Lessons from Ohio’s best charter schools – was released on January 27. You can read the report foreword elsewhere in this issue, and now you can check out the event video by clicking here.

Our principal investigators presented the findings of their survey of the leaders of the top charter schools in the state and moderated a panel of those leaders on topics such as sector quality, accountability, and replication and growth.

The report’s findings and the event garnered attention in media outlets both in the Buckeye State and nationwide. Here’s a snapshot of the coverage:

  • The Columbus Dispatch and the Cincinnati Enquirer discussed the findings on the day of release, comparing them to the papers’ previous reportage on charter school issues.
  • Statewide public radio covered the report and the release event, interviewing the researchers, the panelists, and even an audience member. A staffer from Democrats for Ed Reform was also on hand for the event and wove a very personal story into her observations.
  • National notices were brief but important. Ohio’s top charter schools deserve to be heard above all of the
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On November 1, 2015, Governor John Kasich signed landmark legislation to reform charter schools—House Bill 2, which strengthens the governance of Ohio’s charter sector and holds its key actors more accountable for their performance. These reforms lay the foundation for higher-quality charter schools and better outcomes for children. In time, we expect that the tougher accountability measures in Ohio’s revamped charter law will purge this sector of its lowest-performing schools, those that demonstrate no improvement (or worse) over the schools to which they serve as alternatives. However, simply eliminating ineffective schools is not nearly enough to create the opportunities Ohio children need; simultaneously, state policymakers should nurture the growth and replication of excellent schools.

Ohio already has some exemplary charters—a beachhead and benchmark for future sector quality—but the need for more high-quality schools in urban communities remains acute. In Columbus alone, more than 16,000 children attended truly dismal district or charter schools in 2013–14 (defined as a school that received a D or F for student growth and achievement). Equally staggering numbers of students attended low-performing schools in Cincinnati and Cleveland: 15,000 and 19,000 students, respectively. Taken together, roughly 75,000 youngsters in Ohio’s eight major cities (or about 30 percent...

  • If you ask a thoughtful question, you may be pleased to receive a smart and germane answer. If you post that question in your widely read newspaper column on education, you’ll sometimes be greeted with such a torrent of spontaneous engagement that you have to write a second column. That’s what happened to the Washington Post’s Jay Matthews, who asked his readers in December to email him their impressions of Common Core and its innovations for math: Was it baffling them, or their kids, when they sat down to tackle an assignment together? He revealed some of the responses last week, and the thrust was definitively in support of the new standards. “My first reaction to a Common Core worksheet was repulsion,” one mother wrote of her first grader’s homework. “I set that aside and learned how to do what [my son] was doing. And something magical happened: I started doing math better in my head.” The testimonials are an illuminating contribution to what has become a sticky subject over the last few months. Common Core advocates would be well advised to let parents know that their kids’ wonky-looking problem sets can be conquered after all.
  • Homework
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We’ve learned a few lessons about school choice over the past few decades. Key among those lessons are that quantity does not equal quality and that conditions must be right for choice to flourish. Good intentions only take you so far; sturdy plants grow when seeds are planted in fertile ground. 

We learned as much five years ago when we teamed up with Rick Hess on America’s Best (and Worst) Cities for School Reform, a study that explored the ideal conditions for school reform at the city level. We found that too few of our big cities possessed the talent, leadership, infrastructure, culture, and resources to beckon enterprising reformers and then help them succeed.

But we also found some innovators on that list of cities, many of which served as “proof points” and role models for stodgier places. (Especially notable were New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and New York City.)

Now we’re back with a “spinoff,” America’s Best (and Worst) Cities for School Choice, which focuses on school choice specifically and considers many additional questions—but again demonstrates the spectrum of receptivity to fundamental education reform when one looks across cities.

Priscilla (Penny) Wohlstetter, a distinguished research professor at...

In May 2015, a coalition of stakeholders from business, philanthropy, and education organizations in Cincinnati announced a new public-private partnership called Accelerate Great Schools (AGS). AGS’s goal is to grow the number of high-quality seats in Cincinnati by developing and expanding schools and models that deliver outstanding results for kids. On Wednesday afternoon, AGS announced the recipients of its first two grants.

The first, worth $128,000, will support Cincinnati Public Schools’ (CPS) work with TNTP (formerly known as The New Teacher Project) on attracting, supporting, and developing school principals and assistant principals. As we’ve written before, school leadership is critically important, especially given how difficult it is to recruit and select strong candidates. At an event in October, we heard from Dayton Public Schools Superintendent Lori Ward that it’s particularly difficult for large urban districts to recruit and retain effective principals. Heather Grant, from the Aspiring Principals Program in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, emphasized the importance of ongoing support and development. Thanks to AGS, principal recruitment and development are about to get a whole lot better in Cincinnati. The new CPS grant will assess how the district handles recruiting,...

Robin Lake and Michael DeArmond

At CRPE, we believe strongly in taking a city-wide view of education. The reality of urban education these days is a complicated mash-up of schools run by districts, charter providers, independent private schools, and sometimes even state agencies. It’s usually the case, however, that research reports (e.g., the NAEP TUDA, the CREDO studies, the Brookings Choice report) focus only on a small portion of that picture. We were therefore happy to see that Fordham’s new study on school choice took a specifically urban view to identify the most “choice-friendly” cities in the country. As Rick Hess described it, the report is basically a gardener’s guide: Through an exhaustive array of indicators, the authors have developed a list of soil components that they believe should make for a healthy choice environment.

We produced our own city-wide indicators a few months ago. In Measuring Up: Educational Improvement and Opportunity in 50 Cities, we assessed all public schools on a variety of outcomes: what share of schools were performing above other schools with similar demographics, how quickly all the cities’ schools (both charter- and district-run) were improving compared to other schools in the state, what percentage of low-income students had access to high-performing schools,...

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