Charters & Choice

The Reynoldsburg City School District, just east of Columbus, is far down the “portfolio management” path – further than probably any suburban school district of its size. This feature article discusses portfolio management and takes readers behind the scenes in Reynoldsburg.

The Fordham team has been involved in a variety of discussions and events during the past few weeks. Here's a recap of the latest Fordham highlights:

Fordham's Checker Finn discussed Conservatives and the Common Core in a recent blog. Terry Ryan was quoted in a Columbus Dispatch article about Common Core critics.

Terry Ryan testified May 7 at the Senate Finance Committee with high achieving charter school leaders. Read his testimony and a recap of the event.

As the charter movement enters its third decade, it is imperative that policymakers and legislators understand the perspective of those schools that have succeeded in providing their students with a quality education. The charter sector in Ohio is often seen by those outside as a monolith – for better or worse – but Fordham has long known that there are both high-flyers and underachievers. As an organization that focuses on the availability of quality education for Ohio’s children, Fordham feels it is imperative that the lessons of the high-performing charter schools be known above and beyond the “charter sector” as a whole.

As a step in accomplishing this goal, Fordham’s own Terry Ryan has helped form a coalition of high performing charter schools to testify in front of the Senate Finance Committee’s Education Subcommittee. The schools in which these leaders work represent some of the best public schools that Ohio has to offer. While each leader is advocating for their school and telling the story of what success looks like in their cities, they also provide overarching policy recommendations that could help forward the expansion and replication of successful charters including:

  • Supporting the implementation of the Straight-A-Fund
  • Increasing the
  • ...

When the Ortonville Montessori charter school outside of Flint, Michigan, offered to buy a vacant building from the Brandon school district for $100,000, district officials weighed whether it made more fiscal sense to take the money now or demolish the building as planned and avoid losing possibly more students—and more state funding per pupil—to the charter. Last week, the Brandon Board of Education opted for demolition.

It didn’t matter that the building has sat empty for years and that the district has tried unsuccessfully to sell it to other buyers. It didn’t want to sell to the Ortonville charter because, as Brandon superintendent Lori McMahon casually told a local reporter, “It would be competition for us.”

While extreme, the challenges facing Ortonville focus attention on the struggles for adequate facilities that still bedevil most charter schools. Now twenty years old, many charter schools 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, libraries, or science and computer labs.

That’s the assessment of a survey of charters in ten states released last week by the Charter Schools Facilities Initiative, a joint...

Philly’s Schools Phuture?

During the research for my book, one of the most interesting and depressing tidbits I uncovered was that the handful of high-performing, high-poverty traditional public schools described in No Excuses had not been grown by their districts. The central recommendation of my book is that the “four principles of chartering” should be applied across all three sectors; that includes growing great schools of all types (charter, private, and district). Charter growth has been happening via CMOs for more than a decade now, but the Philadelphia Schools Partnership has found a number of district schools to expand. Interesting development.

Addressing Non-urban Poverty

It appears that, slowly but surely, the education-reform community is paying more and more attention to the needs of low-income kids in rural areas (more on this from Bellwether soon). For years now, the primary focus has been on America’s cities. Maybe it should come as no surprise that Teach for America is stepping forward; TFA has long had a number of non-urban outposts. Its new program is designed to train TFA alum for school leadership positions in rural America. This is a tiny...

GadflySnaps to Gov. Jerry Brown for his fierce defense of a weighted-student-funding plan for California’s schools, one that would reform the state’s questionable financing system by directing more—and much more flexible—funds to districts with high numbers of English learners and low-income families. We only hope that, behind the bluster, he’s willing to talk shop with his state Senate; the kids of California need a win.

A new report out of Rutgers University’s National Institute for Early Education Research heralded an uproar over pre-K financing: We spend $1,100 less per student than we did 2001, blared the headlines. But before you go building an ark and gathering all your pets onto it, note that preschool enrollment increased from 14 percent of four-year-olds to 28 percent during this period. The money increased, too, just not as fast as the headcount, meaning that per pupil funding edged downward even as total pre-school spending rose. What we’re seeing here is dubious policy, not disappearing dollars: Schools should be targeting these dollars at the ...

NACSA is out with the fifth edition of its annual report on the state of charter authorizing.

I love this thing—great data on a critically important part of our field. If you’re interested in chartering, school-level accountability, or The Urban School System of the Future, you definitely want to check it out.

Almost a decade ago, NACSA produced the equivalent of industry standards—the stuff a high-quality authorizer ought to do. These relate to assessing charter applications, monitoring school performance, helping grow high-performers, revoking the charters of low-performers, etc.

This report assesses authorizers against what NACSA deems the 12 “essential practices” of the industry.

Overall, authorizers’ scores improved over last year’s, and large authorizers (those with 10+ schools) scored better than small ones.

Continuing a long-term trend, authorizers are increasingly picky shoppers—they approve far fewer applications than they did back in the day. The average approval rate is now 33 percent.

But many authorizers are still falling short on the back end of accountability: 34 percent of authorizers lack a clear, established policy to close underperforming schools.

Some of the report’s most interesting findings relate to the different types of authorizers (there are six kinds...

A Nation At Risk: 30 Years Later

A Nation At Risk: 30 Years Later

Thirty years ago, A Nation at Risk was released to a surprised country. Suddenly, Americans woke up to learn that SAT scores were plummeting and children were learning a lot less than before. This report became a turning point in modern U.S. education history and marked the beginning of a new focus on excellence, achievement, and results.

Due in large part to this report, we now judge a school by whether its students are learning rather than how much money is going into it, what its programs look like, or its earnest intentions. Education reform today is serious about standards, quality, assessment, accountability and benchmarking—by school, district, state and nation. This is new since 1983 and it’s very important.

Yet we still have many miles to traverse before we sleep. Our students still need to learn far more and our schools need to become far more effective.

To recall the impact of A Nation at Risk these past three decades and to reflect on what lies ahead, watch this short retrospective developed by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the American Enterprise Institute: A Nation at Risk: Thirty Years Later.

In my recent policy brief arguing for a reboot of charter school governance, I said that states need to create the right policy environment to ensure that management companies aren’t acting as puppeteers determining all the moves of a charter school and controlling the governing boards that ought to be in charge. When boards are mere rubber stamps, questions about accountability, incentives, and conflicts of interest are sure to follow (look at the calamity that has befallen the American Indian Model charter schools in California to see how an ineffectual and subservient board can crash even the highest flying charter).

But as my colleague Kathryn Mullen Upton pointed out yesterday, there’s plenty of blame to go around when problems like this surface. Charter boards that agree to arrangements that effectively make them subordinate to managers and vendors are as much at fault, said Upton, who oversees the Fordham Foundation’s charter authorizing operations in Ohio. Moreover, authorizers that grant a charter without even looking at the management agreement bear responsibility, too.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has recommended policies that explicitly assert the independence of the boards that ordinarily hold the...

Redefining the School District in TennesseeTennessee’s Achievement Schools District is the latest character to enter the stage in the most important and interesting act of contemporary education reform: structural-institutional changes in the running and governing of public schools.

For eons, the plot was the same: a district owns and operates all of the public schools in a geographic area. The subplot, if you were in urban America, was that the district-run schools serving most of your community’s kids did so quite badly.

Chartering, entering stage right in 1991, subtly but revolutionarily, showed that other entities could run public schools. A few years later, Michigan and Massachusetts, adding dimension to the character, showed that non-district entities could also authorize (approve, monitor, renew, close) public schools.

The district’s proprietary grip on public education was broken.

Over the course of the 1990s, chartered schools slowly got more and more stage time, growing to capture larger market shares in America’s cities: 10, 15, 20, 30% in some areas.

The plot developed with a new strand: more and more state departments of education...

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