Charters & Choice

I wrote this book because, first and foremost, I wanted our community to know that our activities don’t have to be dictated by decisions made a hundred years ago, especially when those decisions have led to consistently heartbreaking results.

Second, the solution is right in front of us—it’s at work every single day, in cities from coast to coast. We just need to take it from its limited application and scale it, which will take far less work than you might imagine. And it will allow us to do what should have been ages ago: bring an end to the failed urban district.

In the simplest terms, chartering should replace the urban district.

Namely, four systemic innovations that chartering introduced into public education should serve as the tools for managing a city’s portfolio of schools. This is a plan for continuous improvement.

Here a quick walk through how our thinking and activities need to change to realize the urban school system of the future.

First, we have to begin with a new guiding question. Instead of asking, “How do we improve the district?” which wrongfully assumes that the district must be the central actor, our new question should be, “How...

Kojo, Mike, and Abigail

Earlier today on WAMU, Washington’s local NPR station, Kojo Nnamdi hosted a discussion on a major issue facing parents in the D.C. region and around the country. As some popular schools become overburdened—and others face under-enrollment—districts contend with the process of redrawing school boundaries. This is a hugely controversial issue for families, some of whom have changed schools several times already.

One possible alternative to shifting boundaries is to, as Mike Petrilli points out during the show, “sever this link between a parent’s zip code and their child’s educational opportunities” by eliminating traditional school borders altogether. He noted that many students in the District of Columbia—almost 50 percent—are already attending charter schools, while another 25 percent attend traditional public schools out-of-boundary.

Abigail Smith, an independent ed-reform consultant and former chief of DCPS’s transformation office, shared her knowledge of the technical difficulties and opportunities that school choice afford parents. An interesting conversation ensues—be sure to check it out!...

No single philanthropic organization has put more effort and money into the advancement and improvement of school choice—both public and private—than the Walton Family Foundation, which just announced total education-reform outlays in 2012 totaling $158 million. That represents about 37 percent of Walton’s total philanthropic investment during the year. (In second place are freshwater conservation and other environmental concerns.).

While Walton is frequently lauded (and attacked) for its contributions to efforts that shape education policy (contributions that totaled $61 million last year, a bit of that to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute), far more went to foster quality schooling.

For instance, nearly $15 million went to the Charter School Growth Fund, a nonprofit venture-capital group that works to expand the number of seats in high-performing charter networks (a mission the fund has executed with notable success, as attested in the new CREDO report on charter school growth and quality).  About $8.4 million went to the acclaimed KIPP Foundation and $3.2 million to the highly regarded school-leadership group called Building Excellent Schools. A whopping $24 million went to groups like the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and various state-level charter associations to improve existing...

Public education is a set of guiding principles—a combination of beliefs about something that ought to be provided. Some characteristics include,

  • Availability to all children
  • Tuition-free
  • Non-discriminatory
  • Preparation for success in career and higher education

But these principles can be operationalized in countless ways. How we bring them to life is up to us.

A good analogy is democracy. That too is a set of principles:

  • Suffrage for all adults
  • One person, one vote
  • Secret ballots
  • Fair counting of results

But it can take many forms. In the US, we elect a president and Congress separately. In the UK, the prime minister is part of their legislature.

Every four years, we’re reminded that Iowa has a caucus while New Hampshire has a primary. These, and more, are all legitimate forms of democracy.

The problem with urban public education is that we have been led to believe that there is but one real way to deliver public schooling: the district. In fact, many people believe that “the district” and “public education” are synonymous.

But they are not. The district is just one way to deliver public education.

We can do something different.

Some of you have probably believed that to have...

Growing quality charter schools requires strong charter school authorizers. That’s a key takeaway from Stanford University’s CREDO study, Charter School Growth and Replication, released yesterday. To assess charter school quality in 23 states (including Ohio) and the District of Columbia, CREDO examined over 2 million charter student records from 2005-06 to 2009-10.

A charter school authorizer, of which Fordham is one, has four primary responsibilities: (1) review charter applications, (2) contract with the charter school, (3) ensure compliance, and (4) renew or not renew the charter school’s contract based on school performance, especially academic performance. In each area of responsibility, except compliance, CREDO’s findings suggest that charter school authorizers must strengthen its practices to ensure a growing supply of high-quality charters. Three of CREDO’s findings, in particular, have relevance to charter authorizer practices.

First, CREDO found significant variation in the quality of charter school management networks, or CMOs (e.g., KIPP). Authorizers must be persnickety in the educational organizations with whom they contract—there are sour lemons as well as delicious apples in the CMO barrel. CREDO’s analysis discovered that the finest CMO networks (e.g. KIPP and Uncommon Schools) have large positive effects on students’ learning growth, while the...

Part of the appeal of National School Choice Week is that it highlights not just our varied (and flourishing) school choice accomplishments but also the need for more—of both the public and private variety. The sobering reality is that, even with burgeoning charter and voucher movements, school choice is largely exercised by families able to afford private school tuition or who move to neighborhoods because of their schools.

There’s no shortage of efforts or ideas to correct this. But now, StudentsFirst, headed up by Michelle Rhee, has proposed some solutions for policy makers who ought to design programs with underserved children in mind while reasonably regulating these programs in the public interest.

In its newest policy brief, StudentsFirst details its support of enhancing quality options for disadvantaged families through charter schools and school vouchers—with an emphasis on quality. While its support for school choice has been established since its founding, StudentsFirst brings to the debate some common sense reforms that would make these efforts more politically sustainable.

Yes, as the brief documents, there remains a persistent funding gap between charter schools and traditional school districts that needs to be addressed, and lawmakers must find ways to enable charters...

Switching it up

In a surprise twist, Dara Zeehandelaar hosts Fordham president Checker Finn on this week’s Gadfly Show. They discuss Tom Harkin’s retirement, wheelchair basketball, and the flap over the MAP. Amber intervenes with a word on late interventions.

Amber's Research Minute

Late Interventions Matter Too: The Case of College Coaching in New Hampshire by Scott Carell and Bruce Sacerdote (National Bureau of Education Research, Dartmouth College, University of California Davis, July 2012).

Red Tape
Does red tape really stop some private schools from participating in voucher programs? Or is it a red herring?
Photo by Julia Manzerova

Many proponents of private school choice—both the voucher and tax credit scholarship versions—take for granted that schools won’t (or shouldn’t) participate if government asks too much of them, regulates their practices, requires them to reveal closely held information, or—above all—demands that they be publicly accountable for student achievement. This anxiety is plausible in theory. Part of what’s distinctive and valuable—and often educationally effective—about private schools is their freedom to be different, the fact that they are exempt from most of the heavy regulatory regime that characterizes most of public education. Insofar as they cherish that autonomy, over-regulation by government might well deter them from participating in taxpayer-supported choice programs and thereby block children from benefiting from the education that those private schools offer.

But how big a deal is this concern in the real world? Private schools deciding whether to participate in a voucher or tax credit scholarship program must...

Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who is regarded as perhaps the most powerful lawmaker in U.S. education policy, will not seek re-election in 2014. While he was an impediment to change—making this good news for reformers—the word on the grapevine about his possible successor is troubling. Namely, there is talk that if Sen. Patty Murray does not take on the role due to her role on the Senate Budget Committee, the next name on the list is—Sen. Bernie Sanders? We shudder to think.

Last week, the Education Department—with nary a nod to Congress or public debate—declared what Mike Petrilli dubbed a “right to wheelchair basketball” via its new “guidance” on the 1973 Rehabilitation Act. While few oppose the desirability of making reasonable accommodations for the disabled in school sports, the guidance, as pointed out by Politics K–12, “goes farther and says that if reasonable accommodations can’t be made, students with disabilities ‘should still have an equal opportunity to receive the benefits of extracurricular activities,’” thus turning “guidance” into a fully fledged unfunded mandate. For more on this debate, check out Mike’s appearance on NPR’s “On Point” show.

In its latest foray into the...

Ohio’s charter law remains mediocre despite numerous reform efforts over the last decade. According to the latest “Measuring Up to the Model: A Ranking of the State Charter School Laws” produced by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) the Buckeye State’s charter school law ranks 27 out of 43 states and the District of Columbia.

NAPCS ranks state laws based on two primary factors: 1) the freedoms and flexibilities state laws provide charter operators; and 2) the quality of accountability provisions for both charter school operators and authorizers. There are 20 Essential Components of the NAPCS rankings and these range from freedoms such as “No Caps on Charters,” “Automatic Collective Bargaining Exemptions,” and “Equitable Operational Funding” to accountability measures such as “Authorizer and Overall Program Accountability” and “Clear Processes for Renewal, Nonrenewal and Revocation Decisions.”

Ohio has made some progress – and this is reflected in the NAPCS state rating of Ohio inching up from #28 last year to #27 this year. But, other states are making progress faster. Big charter states, those that have at least 4.5% of their students enrolled in public charter schools, that have made steady progress and improvements to...