Charters & Choice

A few weeks ago, I argued that policy change is not the only path to education reform, floated five other approaches for improving educational practice, and promised to flesh them out in future posts. Here’s my attempt at the first of those five strategies, just in time for National Charter Schools Week: “Build a new system via charter schools, education savings accounts, or similar mechanisms” as an alternative to today’s traditional, ossified one.

What does that have to do with educational “practice”? Everything!

John Chubb and Terry Moe explained it well in Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools (1990):

Our analysis shows that the system’s familiar arrangements for direct democratic control do indeed impose a distinctive structure on the educational choices of all the various participants—and that this structure tends to promote organizational characteristics that are ill suited to the effective performance of American public schools. This social outcome is the product of countless individual decisions, but it is not an outcome that any of the major players would want or intend if acting alone. It is truly a product of the system as a whole, an unintended consequence of the way the system works.

Our perspective also suggests that, absent...

Editor's note: This post is the third in an ongoing discussion between Fordham's Michael Petrilli and the University of Arkansas's Jay Greene that seeks to answer this question: Are math and reading test results strong enough indicators of school quality that regulators can rely on them to determine which schools should be closed and which should be expanded—even if parental demand is inconsistent with test results? Prior entries can be found here and here.

It’s always nice to find areas of agreement, but I want to be sure that we really do agree as much as you suggest, Mike. I emphasized that it should take “a lot more than ‘bad’ test scores” to justify overriding parental preferences. You say that you agree. But at the end, you add that we may have no choice but to rely primarily on test scores to close schools and shutter programs—or else “succumb to ‘analysis paralysis’ and do nothing.”

This is a false dichotomy. If all we have are unreliable test scores, we don’t have to make decisions based on them or “do nothing.” Instead, we could rely on local actors who have more contextual knowledge about school or program quality. So if the charter board, local...

The federal Charter Schools Program (CSP), which provides seed money for charter start-ups primarily through competitive state grants, got an upgrade in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in December. Around the same time, CSP got a 32 percent funding boost from Congress. At its highest funding level ever, the program is primed to help states grow their charter sectors—a worthy goal considering that over a million students nationally wait for open seats in charter schools. The new program prioritizes strong authorizing practices and equitable funding for charters, and it attempts to influence state policies toward those ends.

Background

Formed just three years into the nation’s charter movement, CSP embodies Washington’s bipartisan commitment to charters and is responsible for helping launch or expand over 40 percent of today’s operational charter schools. CSP was first created in 1994 as an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 via the Improving America’s Schools Act. At its outset, it was a bare-bones initiative that made competitive grants available to states to host their own sub-grant competitions (for which new start-ups or conversion schools could apply). Requirements were minimal: State applicants merely had to have a charter law, and school applicants had to adhere to the...

We celebrate National Charter Schools Week in Ohio

Auditor of State Dave Yost

I am a conflicted man.

Professionally, I lead Ohio’s auditing staff, a team of financial experts whose job it is to verify that tax dollars are being properly spent and to root out any misuse or theft of public money. That includes charter schools.

Yet personally, I’m a strong proponent of the charter school movement. I believe in the lifetime benefits of school choice and affording every parent the ability to choose the school that will best serve their children.

My friends sometimes question how I can be so tough on charters when I personally support them.

The answer, I tell them, is simple: We don’t play favorites. We can’t. We shouldn’t. Doing so would erode the public’s trust in our office, which we must faithfully and ardently protect. To ignore the misdeeds of the few problem charters would stain the great work of many. Turning a blind eye to the problems in a charter school, or any school, would mean that we failed our children, which is never an option.

It’s a conflict public officials often face when their official duties require them to make decisions that run counter to their personal beliefs.

The mission of the Auditor of State’s office is to keep governments and schools honest—to weed out the bad so the good can flourish.  The accountability and transparency my office provides also shines a light on the charter schools that are doing things right and meeting the true purpose of the community school system.

That purpose is educating kids. I believe that we need to evaluate the success of charter schools not with data alone, but also by considering the lives they touch. While I have cited charter schools for mismanagement or outright fraud, I have witnessed many charter successes as well. The successes don’t make easy headlines. But they are significant nonetheless.

I recently became aware of a young woman by the name of Anna Marie Ridenour. When she was ten, she knew that she loved learning, but did not enjoy attending a traditional school. It just wasn’t the right fit. She enrolled in a new online school called Ohio Connections Academy.

“What many do not understand,” she told the Cincinnati Enquirer, “is that students enroll in a virtual school for various reasons. I needed a more challenging curriculum. But some students arrive struggling academically or socially or with medical problems that make attending a traditional school problematic.”

Ridenour thrived at the online school, and today she is a math teacher there. We’ll never know where her life would have taken her, but we know that her charter school made a profound effect on her life. Stories like hers are why charter schools must remain viable and accountable.

The underlying premise of choice for students, parents, and society is rooted in the American principle of freedom. Being able to choose the best education for our children creates healthy competition that should elevate quality and lead to higher performance.

While it’s important to draw attention to problems we uncover, I’ve made it our responsibility to highlight the work of extraordinary schools. We award special citations almost weekly to celebrate those who have achieved a standard of excellence.

In keeping with that principle, my office will host a Charter School Summit on August 11–12 to share the best practices of our charter schools. Charters have different issues than their public school counterparts, and this summit will allow school leaders to receive training, share their experiences, and learn how their peers handle unique challenges.

Some days, the work of my office makes my friends happy. Other days, I frustrate or disappoint them.

In this respect, I am a man without a country. While I greatly value the choice and freedom that charter schools afford us, my loyalty is to taxpayers and our citizens, not special interests. Even those I support.

Since the passage of House Bill 2, much attention has been paid to how Ohio’s charter sector can build on policy reforms and improve itself. With the imminent (we hope) arrival of federal Charter Schools Program grant dollars, Ohio has a better opportunity than ever to raise its charter game. There are already several charter networks and schools doing great work, but the Buckeye State still has tens of thousands of students, especially in urban areas, enrolled in low-quality schools. It’s time for Ohio to start recruiting top-notch charter management organizations (CMOs) to increase the number of high-quality seats. But how?

Enter a recent report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) that examines the best way for state and local leaders to recruit high-performing CMOs. The report is based on a 2015 survey conducted by NAPCS and the Foundation for Excellence in Education of over twenty high-performing CMOs. Authors compiled the results and pinpointed the elements that CMOs consider when deciding whether and where to expand.

One of the most useful aspects of the report is its analysis of the three types of charter markets: “emerging,” “risk-reward,” and “mature.” Emerging markets (like Georgia and Las Vegas) are characterized as undeveloped or underdeveloped, partly due to “significant challenges regarding regulatory environment, low per-pupil funding, weak talent ecosystem, or density of high-need students.” Risk-reward markets, including Memphis and Indianapolis, are able to support CMO growth with adequate resources and a “largely acceptable” policy climate; but barriers in areas like governance, autonomy, and personnel management can make expansion risky. Finally, a mature market, such as Washington, D.C. or New Orleans, is one that is large and characterized by “strong resource availability, favorable regulatory environments, and high-potential talent/education ecosystems.” 

Placing Ohio and its eligible charter markets in the correct category is complicated (NAPCS provides a few examples of each market but doesn’t place all states and cities in specific markets). Ohio passed its first charter law nearly two decades ago. As of the 2014–15 school year, Ohio had 384 charter schools serving approximately 123,844 students—7 percent of students statewide. According to NAPCS, Dayton and Cleveland are among the ten districts in the nation with the highest percentage of their districts’ students attending public charter schools. Ohio’s long history with charter schools, as well as the overall size of its sector, suggests that the state is a “mature market.”

But there are problems and complications in Ohio’s sector that indicate its charter markets are far from mature. For starters, Ohio doesn’t offer equitable per-pupil funding: The most recent budget increased the state’s allocation for charter students to $5,900 in Fiscal Year (FY) 16 and $6,000 in FY 17. Those are in line with increases to traditional public schools, but charters as a whole still receive 22 percent less funding than their district counterparts. The numbers are even worse in Cleveland, where charters receive 46 percent less funding than district schools, and Dayton, where charters receive 40 percent less. (It’s both ironic and worrisome that these are two of the districts that have the highest percentages of charter students in the nation.) These disparities can be explained by the fact that Ohio charters don’t receive local funds (except for a handful of high-performers in Cleveland), and state funding doesn’t fully compensate for the absence of local dollars. Facilities funding exists, but it isn’t much—the budget provides only $150 in per-pupil facilities funding for FY 16 and $200 for FY 17. Last year’s budget created a competitive grant for charter schools to access facilities funds, but it’s still unclear how many networks will benefit or whether any out-of-state networks will be able to tap in.

Thanks to House Bill 2, Ohio charter law has vastly improved—particularly as it relates to holding schools and their authorizers accountable—but charter politics remain controversial at best and nasty at worst. Thus, Ohio is probably best labeled an emerging market: The sector may have hundreds of schools and thousands of students, but its inequitable per-pupil funding, challenging regulatory environment, and charged political atmosphere make it underdeveloped in multiple ways.

Despite these drawbacks, there are strategies that Ohio could adopt to make itself more attractive to high-performing CMOs. One action lawmakers could take would be to make per-pupil funding more equitable. Although having all public funds follow children to the schools of their choice makes the most sense, it is also the most politically difficult. Legislators could also raise the per-pupil amount of charters’ operational funding or increase the amount of facilities funding.

Fortunately, these ideas aren’t prerequisites for attracting high-performing networks; recruiting and improving can be done simultaneously. Since state law requires that charters be located in “challenged” districts, Ohio would benefit immensely from recruiting CMOs whose mission is to serve low-performing, low-income kids in urban areas. CMOs that specialize in high school present another good option, since high school performance data in Ohio is troubling, and there are far too few charters for older students (though there are a few excellent ones). Finally, CMOs that operate with innovative models not yet widely used in the state—like those specializing in blended learning—could increase the overall number of high quality seats and fulfill an unmet need.

Ohio’s charter sector is in a unique place and poised for change, though there is still much to be done. HB 2 must be implemented faithfully, sponsor evaluations must be conducted fairly, and funding and talent pipelines have to improve. But Ohio has a massive opportunity to improve the academic outcomes of its most disadvantaged students. By effectively recruiting high-quality CMOs, the Buckeye State can supercharge its efforts to improve the sector—and do right by the thousands of kids waiting for an excellent education. 

Since their inception in 1999, Buckeye charter schools have grown rapidly. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), Ohio had just over fifty-nine thousand charter students in 2004–05; ten years later, that number had more than doubled to 122,000 students, representing 7 percent of the public school population. These statistics demonstrate the impressive and sustained growth of the charter movement in Ohio; but where do most charters students live? Are they evenly distributed throughout the state or heavily concentrated in a few areas? Which cities have the largest charter “enrollment share,” and what areas of the state have very few charter students? Answers to these questions can help us identify opportunities for growth and partnership—and even make the case for policy change.

To conduct this analysis, I use the enrollment data from the state’s District Payment Reports (FY 2015: Final #3 payment). These reports display the number of charter students who live within the jurisdiction of each district (on a full-time equivalent basis), so we can count students by their districts of residence.[1] This analysis of charter enrollment yields three main takeaways.

The majority of charter students live in urban areas

A slight majority of Ohio charter students (55 percent) live in Big Eight districts.[2] In absolute numbers, the districts with the most charter students are Cleveland (17,924), Columbus (17,732), and Toledo (9,422). In Cincinnati and Dayton, 7,673 and 6,610 students avail themselves of the charter option respectively. An additional 18 percent of Ohio charter students come from the Big Eight’s suburban communities: When expanding the boundaries to a county level, state data reveal that 73 percent of Ohio charter students reside in the county of a Big Eight district (e.g., Franklin County for Columbus).

The concentration of charter students in urban areas is related to state law. Generally speaking, charters may only locate in academically “challenged” districts, which are mainly found in urban areas. (For more on the identification of such districts and the geographic restrictions on startup charters, see Revised Code 3314.02(A)(3)). Given that the majority of charter students come from urban communities, the demographics of charters are less advantaged than the state overall. CREDO’s 2014 study on Ohio charters reported that three in four charter students come from low-income families (compared to 45 percent statewide); such students are also disproportionately African American (45 percent versus 14 percent statewide). For these reasons, we at Fordham usually compare charter performance with Big Eight schools—which have much similar demographics—rather than to schools statewide. When proper comparisons are made, the results of charters track more closely with similarly situated districts.  

Twenty-five districts have greater than 10 percent charter students

Chart 1 displays the districts with the highest percentage of charter students as a fraction of their overall public school student population. The chart shows that twenty-five districts have more than 10 percent charter students, and nine districts have more than 20 percent of students in a charter. Dayton, Toledo, and Cleveland lead the way at 29 percent each. Most of the non-Big Eight districts on the chart are located in the same counties as Big Eight districts. For example, Warrensville Heights, near Cleveland, is in Cuyahoga County. The exceptions are as follows: Lorain and Elyria (Lorain County), Mansfield (Richland), Portsmouth (Scioto), Middletown (Butler), and Pleasant (Marion).

A modest number of districts barely miss the 10 percent threshold—fourteen have a charter enrollment share between 8 and 10 percent. These include inner-ring suburban districts like South-Western (near Columbus) and Huber Heights (near Dayton), along with several poorer small town districts like Lima, Newark, Springfield (Clark County), and Zanesville. If charters continue to expand, we should expect a dozen or more districts to reach the 10 percent level within the next few years.

Chart 1: Ohio districts with more than 10 percent charter students – 2014–15

Most districts have a very small share of charter students

Once we leave urban communities, very few students attend charters. In fact, a majority of Ohio districts—364 out of 608—have less than 3 percent of their resident students attending charters. As Table 1 displays, most of these small charter school markets are located in rural, suburban, and small town areas. Generally speaking, their charter students attend a statewide online charter school or attend a “conversion” charter school sponsored by their local districts. The tiny fraction of charter students in non-urban communities can be traced to the state’s legal prohibitions on where startup charters can locate. It could be also explained by a lack of demand for non-district options, but one cannot be sure how families would respond unless state lawmakers allow entrants into these markets. 

Table 1: Charter enrollment share by district typology – 2014–15

What are the implications of these data? Three thoughts:

First, as Chart 1 demonstrates, Ohio’s largest cities have large charter sectors. As a result, local and city leaders cannot ignore charter schools (or, worse, regard them with hostility). Rather, they should treat them as equals when it comes to funding, transportation, and facilities. Cities like Cleveland have begun to embrace cross-sector approaches to educating students, and other communities in Ohio should as well. At the end of the day, it should be about ensuring that every student, regardless of their choice of school, has the support necessary to be successful.

Second, although charter enrollment reaches almost 30 percent in a few cities, there is still much room for high-performing charters to grow. As our annual report card analyses have repeatedly shown, we need more excellent inner-city schools. To meet this need, civic and philanthropic leaders should aggressively support the expansion of exemplary charters such as Breakthrough, Dayton Early College Academy, KIPP Columbus, and the United Schools Network.

Third, opportunity awaits in the Buckeye State’s non-urban communities, home to very few charter students. To enable the development of new and innovative schools, Ohio lawmakers should remove the geographic cap on charters (most states have no geographic restrictions). In America, families can select from a variety of options in practically all areas of their lives—where to buy groceries, which physician to go to, where to bank, what home to buy, what church or synagogue to join. Why shouldn’t families everywhere have the freedom to choose from different schools? Ohio policy makers can increase school choice by eliminating the geographic restrictions on startup charters.

Although charter schools have been controversial in the Buckeye State, the enrollment data indicate that in locations where lawmakers have allowed charters to blossom, Buckeye families and students are taking advantage of this alternative. The imperative now is to ensure that all families—regardless of zip code—have access to worthy school choices.


[1] When summing the total number of public school students in a district, the large majority of students receiving a voucher are included. EdChoice, Autism, and Jon Peterson scholarship students are accounted for on the district payment report; however, only a portion of Cleveland voucher students are reported. Therefore, I use the Friedman Foundation’s enrollment count for Cleveland. EdChoice (low-income) students are not included, since they are not funded through the state foundation program; across the state, there are less than 7,500 students in the program, so their exclusion does not materially affect the analysis.

[2] The Big Eight districts are Akron, Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo, and Youngstown.

 

The passage of comprehensive charter school reform in the form of House Bill 2 was supposed to move charters past the controversies that had overshadowed the excellent work of good schools. The new era promised to be focused less on audits and academic failings and more on how charters can create more high quality education options for families in the Buckeye State. Unfortunately, a series of troubling recent developments involving online charter schools threatens to undermine the progress that Ohio has made. Rather than waiting until the clarion call for change is deafeningly loud, Ohio charter advocates should once again step up and lead the effort to improve their sector.

Online charters in the spotlight

While the academic performance of online charter schools has been criticized before, a national study released in October by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University provided the most compelling—and shocking—data to date showing the lackluster academic achievement of online charter school students. In Ohio, for example, the CREDO study indicated that online students lost seventy-nine days of learning per year in reading and 144 days in math compared to their peers in traditional public schools.

Cringeworthy numbers to be sure, but the story gets worse. The Columbus Dispatch and Akron Beacon Journal recently published pieces on a couple of small online charter schools that struggled with attendance audits. One of the schools was unable to properly document student attendance and was forced to repay a significant portion of the public funding it received. Around the same time, perhaps fearing an attendance audit of its own, representatives of ECOT (The Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow) were rumored to be pushing for changes to law that would allow funding based upon “offering” classes to students rather than actually “providing” the education. None of these stories painted online charter schools—or the charter movement overall—in a favorable light. Rather, they reinforced the worst assumptions people have about some charters: that they put profits before students.

The need to act

Standing idly by and hoping everything works itself out is a risky course of action for choice advocates. Ohio online charter schools serve somewhere around forty thousand students. If the academic information found by CREDO—and backed up by many state report card measures—is even close to being correct, far too many students are struggling and potentially falling hopelessly behind. As advocates for students first and foremost, we charter supporters have a duty to step in and make sure irreparable academic harm is not occurring.

Second, allegations of waste or fraud—whether in an online or brick-and-mortar charter school—cause serious harm to the reputation of the sector as a whole. Right now, the significant reforms included in HB 2 should be improving the performance and public perception of charter schools—unfortunately, the debate is once again stuck on basic elements like student attendance and what it means to educate a student in an online setting. This doesn’t inspire the confidence of taxpayers (or, for that matter, legislators).

Third, it’s been a nearly constant refrain of charter school opponents for the last decade or so that a few powerful charter school operators have an outsized political influence due primarily to campaign contributions. Forgetting for a moment the hypocritical aspects of those claims, given the active political engagement of teachers’ unions, letting ECOT take center stage on these issues is a strategic mistake for charter advocates. ECOT, like all special interests, deserves to have its voice heard, but the solutions that legislators craft should also reflect the input of other online providers, the broader charter community, education stakeholders, and taxpayers.

Finally, if neither an alarming lack of student learning nor public perception of fraud and alleged improper political influence is enough to stir the charter community to action, then a recently introduced bill by Senator Joe Schiavoni should be. Schiavoni, a leading critic of charter schools, has put forward legislation that would attempt to address attendance issues but would go farther and prohibit online schools from offering career and technical education, require disclosures on school marketing materials, and prevent charters from pursuing a hybrid model unless they have an “exemplary” sponsor. Whether Schiavoni’s billwell received by statewide media—is likely to pass or not, the charter movement does itself a grave disservice when we don’t directly address issues and put forward our own solutions. By policing ourselves, the charter movement can develop solutions that are smarter, quicker, and less intrusive than those devised by charter critics and political leaders.

Moving forward

Charter critics undoubtedly see the most recent struggles of online charter schools as an Achilles’ heel for the fast-growing charter sector. They’re right, but online charters aren’t going away—and they shouldn’t. Online education isn’t yet producing the overall results that it needs to, but it can’t be overlooked that around forty thousand Ohio families have chosen an online school for their children’s education. For many areas of the state, it’s still the only meaningful form of school choice if the assigned district school isn’t meeting a student’s needs.

Moreover, the potential for innovation in the online setting is high. This is a new era, and Ohio needs to figure out what the model is capable of and how it can effectively serve students. Charters play a valuable role in this effort. There are even some indications, judging by the most recent report card of Ohio Connections Academy, that some online schools might be starting to figure it out.

Figuring it out for the whole sector, though, is going to involve some really difficult decisions on a host of topics that are critical to developing this model of education. Ohio policy makers will need to answer key questions impacting online education, such as how to track attendance, whether to provide funding based upon attendance or course completion, how to handle students who don’t have the support structures to succeed in an online setting, and whether online schools have a responsibility to provide additional help to struggling students. Charter school advocates not only need to be involved in those conversations, we need to lead them. If we don’t step up and use our expertise to offer solutions, we run the very real risk that opponents of choice—those who don’t believe in a parent’s inherent right to choose—will do it for us. These aren’t easy issues, but until they are solved, the reputation of Ohio charter schools and the education outcomes for more than forty thousand online students could suffer. For Buckeye State charter school advocates, more work remains. 

Previous research has found that oversubscribed urban charter schools produce large academic gains for their students. But are these results related to test score inflation, defined by one assessment expert as “increases in scores that do not signal a commensurate increase in proficiency in the domain of interest”? To explore this question, a recent study examines state testing data from 2006 to 2011 at nine Boston middle school charters with lottery-based admissions. By exploiting the random nature of the lottery system, prior studies have found that these schools produce substantial learning gains on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS).

To carry out the analysis, author Sarah Cohodes breaks down the learning gains by the various components of the state assessment—akin to how one might disaggregate overall gains by student subgroup. For example, a math assessment contains several different testing domains (e.g., geometry versus statistics), with some topics being tested more frequently than others. The hypothesis is as follows: If the gains are attributable to score inflation, we might expect to see stronger results on frequently tested items relative to obscure ones. In line with their incentives, teachers might strategically focus instruction on items with the highest odds of appearing on the exam, thus inflating scores. This is a possibility; as the author notes, a case study of Boston charters revealed that “teachers use publicly available MCAS items from prior years...and teachers constantly track their students’ progress on content that is tested.”

The study finds that the Boston charter school effect is dispersed evenly across the test items. In sixth to eighth grade math, charter students enjoyed a 0.25–0.35 standard deviation gain along all five topics: geometry; measurement; number sense and operations; patterns, algebra, and relations; and data analysis, statistics, and probability. Comparable results emerged across the two topics within the English language arts exam (reading, as well as language and literature). Cohodes also conducts a few variations of the analysis, including one that assigns test items to their relevant academic standard and then determines how frequently the standard appears on exams. She finds that charter students make gains of similar magnitude, regardless of how rare or common the tested standard is. Finally, the analysis considers whether math and ELA results are different than science, a lower-stakes test, and the gains are of comparable size.

The study cannot prove that test preparation is not occurring at all in these charter schools—the teachers could be very effective at preparing students along the entire spectrum of assessed topics. But it does appear that high-performing charters are not inappropriately gaming the test by focusing on a narrow set of frequently tested items at the expense of others. Perhaps this study can defuse some of the finger pointing aimed at high-performing charters and refocus our attention on learning how the finest charter schools “teach to the student.”

SOURCE: Sarah Cohodes, “Teaching to the Student: Charter School Effectiveness in Spite of Perverse Incentives,” Education Finance and Policy (Winter 2016): 1–42.

National education reform leader and author Kevin P. Chavous will visit central Ohio to headline the June 10 event with his presentation Building a Learning Culture in America. Through personal stories of his work as an educator, advocate, and change agent, Chavous will share his vision of how to reclaim a positive learning culture and to regain international leadership in education.

The program will also feature Ohio school leaders sharing their strategies for creating a culture of learning and engagement in their classrooms. Jim Mahoney, Ph.D., executive director of Battelle for Kids, will provide the closing keynote on Creating Highly Effective Teachers.

The OAPCS Charter School Leadership Event

Friday, June 10, 2016, 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon

The Conference Center at OCLC, Lakeside Room

6565 Kilgour Place

Dublin, Ohio 43017

Register today by clicking here.

The school choice tent is much bigger than it used to be. Politicians and policy wonks across the ideological spectrum have embraced the principle that parents should get to choose their children’s schools and local districts should not have a monopoly on school supply.

But within this big tent there are big arguments about the best way to promote school quality. Some want all schools to take the same tough tests and all low-performing schools (those that fail to show individual student growth over time) to be shut down (or, in a voucher system, to be kicked out of the program). Others want to let the market work to promote quality and resist policies that amount to second-guessing parents.

In the following debate, Jay Greene of the University of Arkansas's Department of Education Reform and Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute explore areas of agreement and disagreement around this issue of school choice and school quality. In particular, they address the question: Are math and reading test results strong enough indicators of school quality that regulators can rely on them to determine which schools should be closed and which should be expanded—even if parental demand is inconsistent with...

Auditor of State Dave Yost

I am a conflicted man.

Professionally, I lead Ohio’s auditing staff, a team of financial experts whose job it is to verify that tax dollars are being properly spent and to root out any misuse or theft of public money. That includes charter schools.

Yet personally, I’m a strong proponent of the charter school movement. I believe in the lifetime benefits of school choice and affording every parent the ability to choose the school that will best serve their children.

My friends sometimes question how I can be so tough on charters when I personally support them.

The answer, I tell them, is simple: We don’t play favorites. We can’t. We shouldn’t. Doing so would erode the public’s trust in our office, which we must faithfully and ardently protect. To ignore the misdeeds of the few problem charters would stain the great work of many. Turning a blind eye to the problems in a charter school, or any school, would mean that we failed our children, which is never an option.

It’s a conflict public officials often face when their official duties require them to make decisions that run counter to their personal beliefs.

The mission of the Auditor of...

Previous research has found that oversubscribed urban charter schools produce large academic gains for their students. But are these results related to test score inflation, defined by one assessment expert as “increases in scores that do not signal a commensurate increase in proficiency in the domain of interest”? To explore this question, a recent study examines state testing data from 2006 to 2011 at nine Boston middle school charters with lottery-based admissions. By exploiting the random nature of the lottery system, prior studies have found that these schools produce substantial learning gains on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS).

To carry out the analysis, author Sarah Cohodes breaks down the learning gains by the various components of the state assessment—akin to how one might disaggregate overall gains by student subgroup. For example, a math assessment contains several different testing domains (e.g., geometry versus statistics), with some topics being tested more frequently than others. The hypothesis is as follows: If the gains are attributable to score inflation, we might expect to see stronger results on frequently tested items relative to obscure ones. In line with their incentives, teachers might strategically focus instruction on items with the highest odds...

The passage of comprehensive charter school reform in the form of House Bill 2 was supposed to move charters past the controversies that had overshadowed the excellent work of good schools. The new era promised to be focused less on audits and academic failings and more on how charters can create more high quality education options for families in the Buckeye State. Unfortunately, a series of troubling recent developments involving online charter schools threatens to undermine the progress that Ohio has made. Rather than waiting until the clarion call for change is deafeningly loud, Ohio charter advocates should once again step up and lead the effort to improve their sector.

Online charters in the spotlight

While the academic performance of online charter schools has been criticized before, a national study released in October by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University provided the most compelling—and shocking—data to date showing the lackluster academic achievement of online charter school students. In Ohio, for example, the CREDO study indicated that online students lost seventy-nine days of learning per year in reading and 144 days in math compared to their peers in traditional public schools....

Next week, in a series daily blog posts, Jay Greene and I will explore areas of agreement and disagreement around the issue of school choice and school quality. In particular, we will address the question: Are math and reading test results strong enough indicators of school quality that regulators can rely on them to determine which schools should be closed and which should be expanded—even if parental demand is inconsistent with test results?

The school choice tent is much bigger than it used to be. Politicians and policy wonks across the ideological spectrum have embraced the principle that parents should get to choose their children’s schools and local districts should not have a monopoly on school supply.

But within this big tent there are big arguments about the best way to promote school quality. Some want all schools to take the same tough tests, and for low-performing schools (those that fail to show individual student growth over time) to be shut down (or, in a voucher system, to be kicked out of the program). Others want to let the market work to promote quality and resist policies that amount to second-guessing parents.

Look for the first post, from Jay, on Monday....

Since their inception in 1999, Buckeye charter schools have grown rapidly. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), Ohio had just over fifty-nine thousand charter students in 2004–05; ten years later, that number had more than doubled to 122,000 students, representing 7 percent of the public school population. These statistics demonstrate the impressive and sustained growth of the charter movement in Ohio; but where do most charters students live? Are they evenly distributed throughout the state or heavily concentrated in a few areas? Which cities have the largest charter “enrollment share,” and what areas of the state have very few charter students? Answers to these questions can help us identify opportunities for growth and partnership—and even make the case for policy change.

To conduct this analysis, I use the enrollment data from the state’s District Payment Reports (FY 2015: Final #3 payment). These reports display the number of charter students who live within the jurisdiction of each district (on a full-time equivalent basis), so we can count students by their districts of residence.[1] This analysis of charter enrollment yields three main takeaways.

The majority of charter students live in urban areas...

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