Charters & Choice

Here’s the speech I wish Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser would give:

Our great city has a once-in-a-generation opportunity. We have the nation’s best urban superintendent. We have a very high-performing charter sector—just named the healthiest in the nation!—that now serves nearly half of the city’s kids. Our parents, kids, educators, and citizens should be proud.

But public education in our city is also facing a number of systemic challenges: DCPS asks why it can’t function with the same freedoms as the charter sector. Charters ask why DCPS doesn’t have to get an authorizer’s approval to start new schools—and why district schools aren’t held accountable like charters. DCPS says it’s unfair that it has to serve as the educator of last resort for all city kids, while charters can choose not to backfill or take mid-year transfers. Charters say it’s unfair that DCPS gets to control all of the school facilities and gets more per-pupil funding.

These challenges may seem too many and too daunting. But they’re all components of a single issue: We have two sectors, scores of operators, and hundreds of campuses, but we don’t have a comprehensive, coherent system of schools.

The good news is that we have the...

A new report by the National Charter School Resource Center examines the unique position of rural charter schools across America.

Citing a lack of research on the subject, as well as the demand for more examples of successful practice, the authors identify some of the unique difficulties that rural charter schools face: attracting and holding onto diverse local talent, paying to transport students over large distances, and maintaining and securing school facilities.

These challenges are often more acute for rural charter schools than their urban counterparts. There are hidden costs to teachers living and working in rural areas, such as a lack of suitable housing, professional growth opportunities, and good transportation. Providing transportation to students in areas with few alternative options may be prohibitively expensive. Simply locating appropriate buildings in which to operate a charter school is usually easier in an urban environment, where disused structures are more frequently available. When rural charters need to construct their own, costs rise exponentially.

Using examples in five states, the authors showcase a handful of rural charters that have overcome this adversity by using their position to their advantage.

  • Having struggled to retain good staff, the remote Upper Carmen Charter School in Idaho
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A new set of four studies conducted by Pat Wolf and colleagues evaluate various aspects of the Louisiana Scholarship Program. The program, it’s important to note, prohibits participating schools from using their normal selective admissions process for their voucher kids and also mandates that they administer the state test, among other requirements.

The first study examines how the scholarships affect student achievement. It focuses on the 2012–13 applicant cohort, including those who took state tests in grades 3–6 in school year 2011–12. This provides student baseline scores for kids before entering the program. Students who applied to oversubscribed schools were randomly chosen to receive scholarships. The study found that the voucher program had a negative impact on participating students’ achievement in the first two years of operations, most clearly in math. Specifically, a voucher user who was performing at the fiftieth percentile at baseline fell twenty-four percentile points below their control group peers in math after one year. By year two, however, they were thirteen percentile points below, so at least they were on the upswing. (The results for reading impact can’t be presented with confidence.)

The second study measured the impact of the voucher programs on non-cognitive skills like...

If you’re at all interested in Washington, D.C. schools, you should read this excellent report by David Osborne. It serves as a quick and comprehensive history lesson on the city’s last two decades of reform. It also offers valuable analysis of the current state of play and makes a compelling argument about why things landed where they did.

But I think the report’s most valuable contribution is the implicit question it raises about the future. That question—related to the evolution of urban K–12 systems with district and non-district charter sectors—is being faced by cities from coast to coast. How the District (and other places) answers it will shape the next decade of urban school reform. In fact, because of D.C.’s work over the last twenty years and its strong leadership today, it could become the nation’s most important city for systemic reform.

Much of the report proceeds chronologically. If you know nothing about the recent history of D.C. schools, this is a great primer. But even if you’re familiar with the city, you’ll gain a new appreciation for how events and initiatives built on one another. There are many interrelated storylines: turnover in city government, shifting demographics, the creation of...

Editor's note: This post was first published on Flypaper on July 21, 2015.

John Kasich announced today that he’s running for president. The current governor of Ohio is the sixteenth Republican to join the crowded GOP primary, dwarfing the five-person field on the other side of the aisle. He’s also the twenty-first subject of our Eduwatch 2016 series chronicling presidential candidates’ stances on education issues.

Kasich entered politics in the late 1970s, when he was elected to the Ohio Senate. He moved on to the House of Representatives in 1983, representing the state’s Twelfth Congressional District until 2001. After taking a break from public life, he returned to take Ohio’s helm in 2011. During his time as the state’s sixty-ninth governor, Kasich has made education a priority, and his efforts have produced some positive results. Here’s a sampling of his views:

1. Common Core: “[The idea behind the standards was for] students in every state to be given the opportunity to compete with every other student….I want kids to jump higher….I’m going to make sure, at least in my state, that standards are high and local control is maintained….Now, some may call that Common Core. I...

“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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