Charters & Choice

On June 22, the Dropout Prevention and Recovery Study Committee met for its first of three meetings this summer. The committee is composed of two Ohio lawmakers (Representative Andrew Brenner and Senator Peggy Lehner) and several community leaders. It was created under a provision in House Bill 2 (Ohio’s charter reform bill) and is tasked with defining school quality and examining competency-based funding for dropout-recovery schools by August 1.  

Conducting a rigorous review of state policies on the state’s ninety-four dropout-recovery charter schools is exactly the right thing to do—not only as a legal requirement, but also because these schools now educate roughly sixteen thousand adolescents. The discussion around academic quality is of particular importance. These schools have proven difficult to judge because of the students they serve: young adults who have dropped out or are at risk of doing so. By definition, these kids have experienced academic failure already. So what is fair to expect of their second-chance schools?

Let’s review the status of state accountability for dropout-recovery schools and take a closer look at the results from the 2014–15 report cards. In 2012–13, Ohio began to provide data on the success of its dropout-recovery...

Dan Quisenberry’s recent piece in Fordham’s Gadfly suggested that newly enacted legislation in Michigan represents a “victory for charter quality in Detroit.” Dan is great, and it’s true that the legislation will likely help a little with charter quality. But given the dire need to fix Detroit’s fundamentally broken public school system, his title really should have read “Victory for the charter school lobby.” 

Okay, maybe that’s a bit harsh. But the fact is the state has offered the beleaguered residents of the Motor City the education equivalent of a scooter when what they need is a Range Rover. For a while, politicians in Lansing were weighing serious reform ideas to address the dismal financial and academic reality of Detroit’s public schools (charter and district alike). But those proposals made charter schools nervous.

The earlier bill would have created a Detroit Education Commission (DEC), overseen by the mayor, to close or turn around low-performing district and charter schools, allocate buildings, and manage the most chaotic problems around facilities and enrollment. It would have gone a long way toward addressing local problems by creating local solutions and requiring district-charter coordination to address the most pressing pain points for families. The legislation would...

Traditional districts that serve as charter school sponsors are often glossed over in the debate over Ohio’s charter sector. But given their role in two recent reports, it’s an opportune time to take a closer look at their track record.  

First, a Know Your Charter report covered the failings of a number of Buckeye charters receiving federal startup funds (either they closed or never opened). Though the report itself didn’t draw attention to it, we pointed out that school districts sponsored more than 40 percent of these closed schools. Meanwhile, the auditor of state released a review of charter school attendance; among the three schools referred for further action because of extraordinarily low attendance, two had district sponsors (the third was sponsored by an educational service center).

With all of the talk about charters being created to privatize education, it might surprise you to learn that Ohio school districts have long had the authority to sponsor (a.k.a. authorize) charters. In fact, the Buckeye State allows districts to sponsor either conversion or startup charters within certain geographic limitations (e.g., a school must be located within a district’s jurisdiction or in a district nearby)....

School choice advocates have long agreed on the importance of understanding what parents value when selecting a school for their children. A new study from Mathematica seeks to add to that conversation and generally finds the same results as prior research. What makes this study relatively unique, however, is that its analysis is based on parents’ rank-ordered preferences on a centralized school application rather than self-reported surveys.

To analyze preferences, researchers utilized data from Washington, D.C.’s common enrollment system, which includes traditional district schools and nearly all charters. D.C. families that want to send their children to a school other than the one they currently attend (or are zoned to attend) must submit a common application on which they rank their twelve most preferred schools. Students are then matched to available spaces using a random assignment algorithm.

The study tests for five domains of school choice factors: convenience (measured by commute distance from home to school),[1] school demographics (the percentage of students in a school who are the same race or ethnicity as the chooser), academic indicators (including a school’s proficiency rate from the previous year), school neighborhood characteristics (crime rates and measures of...

Daniel L. Quisenberry

That education in Detroit, like much else in the Motor City, needs a reboot is beyond argument. The city’s students have endured increasing violence in recent decades, along with failed support systems, the absence of working streetlights, and the worst city transportation system in the country. People with the means to relocate have abandoned the city, and most of those who remained understandably sought ways to change the course of their children’s futures. The change of choice was to find a school of choice. Today, 53 percent of Detroit students attend a charter school—about the same as in Washington, D.C., and second only to New Orleans.

The mere presence of charter schools does not mean that Detroit’s education problems have been solved. Most of the city’s students are behind before they even begin. As in any community where poverty reigns, those with the fewest resources face the greatest challenges to overcome in reaching a satisfactory level of achievement. Charter schools have limited resources, but the best of them find success via innovative, student-focused approaches to teaching and learning. And while the city’s dire funding crisis masked the reality of what it takes to reach these kids, charter schools powered through...

The common ground edition

On this week’s podcast, Mike Petrilli and Alyssa Schwenk discuss education reform’s common ground, the diversity of selective public high schools, and Ohio’s new charter law. During the Research Minute, David Griffith examines the effects of D.C.’s citywide charter school lottery.

A new study evaluates the SEED School of Washington, D.C.—which, according to authors, is the “nation’s first urban, public, college-preparatory boarding school.” Located in Southeast Washington, it serves roughly 320 students between grades six and twelve. Most of the students admitted are African American, low-performing, and economically disadvantaged. The school operates under the assumption that breaking the cycle of poverty requires a holistic intervention that provides students with a safe place to live, regular healthy meals, caring adults, and resources like libraries and extracurricular activities that middle and high-income communities take for granted. Analysts from MDRC analyzed how the SEED program is run and whether being offered a seat impacted student academic and behavioral outcomes.

Because the school is a part of D.C.’s annual admissions lottery—open by law to any student who resides in the city (meaning that the school cannot select its students based on need or demographics)—researchers were able to identify two comparable groups totaling 766 students: those who applied and were randomly accepted, and those who applied and were denied, between 2006 and 2011. Of the accepted group, 80 percent were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and a little less than 50 percent scored at or...

On the heels of national research studies that have uncovered troubling findings on the performance of virtual charter schools, a new report provides solid, commonsense policy suggestions aimed at improving online schools and holding them more accountable for results. Three national charter advocacy organizations—NAPCS, NACSA, and 50CAN—united to produce these joint recommendations.

The paper’s recommendations focus on three key issues: authorizing, student enrollment, and funding. When it comes to authorizers, the authors suggest restricting oversight duties for statewide e-schools to state or regional entities; capping authorizing fees; and creating “virtual-specific goals” to which schools are held accountable. Such goals, which would be part of the authorizer-school contract, could include matters of enrollment, attendance, achievement, truancy, and finances. On enrollment, the authors cite evidence that online education may not be a good fit for every child and suggest that states study whether to create admissions standards for online schools (in contrast to open enrollment). They also recommend limits to enrollment growth based on performance; for instance, a high-performing school would have few (if any) caps on growth, while a low-performer would face strict limits. Finally, the report touches on funding policies, including recommendations to fund online schools based on their costs and to...

  • Elite public academies like Boston Latin, Stuyvesant High School, and San Francisco’s Lowell High School have long been acclaimed for the top-flight academics they offer to applicants who pass their rigorous entrance exams. Lately, however, they’ve been receiving some unwanted attention: Many now argue that the schools’ admissions practices should be altered to cultivate student populations that more closely reflect the demographics of their host cities. Of course, the issue of race and selective schools isn’t a new one, but it has recently burned so hot that people have begun losing their jobs. PBS’s Newshour, in collaboration with Education Week, has a fine roundup of the debate. One point that’s beyond dispute, however, is that major urban K–8 systems need to do a much better job preparing students of color to enter our best high schools. This objective may call for enhanced gifted-and-talented programming, more funding for magnet schools, and a commitment to a form of academic tracking in the early years. Whatever the ingredients, the aim should be higher-achieving kids.
  • Education Week’s terrific coverage has actually earned double honors this week, as we hasten to recommend that you check out their special package
  • ...

Many education reformers once thought that parental choice was the “ultimate local control.” When opponents of choice programs defended the district monopoly system by rhetorically asking, “Don’t you believe in your locally elected board?” we’d reply, “We want education decisions to be made as close to kids as possible—by families.”

We thought that this was the morally sound answer. But we also thought that it was a political winner. Sure, there’d be opposition from those lobbying on behalf of the districts that stood to lose control. But everyone else would want to empower parents.

Moreover, many of us had read John Chubb and Terry Moe’s seminal Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, which argued that democratic control was the cause of many of public education’s troubles. Local school boards, many reformers believed, were populated by aspiring politicians with pet issues and petty grievances. They were controlled by powerful interest groups who cared about things other than student learning.

We assumed that school results would be much better, and school politics much reduced, if we dramatically decentralized the system by handing authority to families, educators, and civil society. Teachers could start and lead schools, nonprofits could operate and support schools, and parents could match...