Charters & Choice

Parker Baxter

Last week, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) launched “One Million Lives,” a multi-pronged campaign to provide better schools to one million children by closing failing charter schools and opening many more good ones. 

It might seem odd that an organization that supports charter schools would call for the closure of hundreds of them. But it’s not. It makes perfect sense.

At the heart of the charter school concept is a bargain between schools and the entities that authorize them. Charter schools agree to accept greater accountability, including the possibility of closure, in exchange for greater freedom from bureaucratic rules that can inhibit effective teaching and learning. Charters receive autonomy over inputs in exchange for accountability for outcomes.

The surest way to cripple the charter movement is to let failing charter schools continue to operate.

The possibility of closure is essential to making the charter school bargain work. It is not a coincidence that where charters are working well, the threat of closure is real—and that where they are not, closure is rare. If closure isn’t a real possibility, the charter bargain is out of balance. When the link between autonomy and accountability is broken, quality...

The Louisiana Constitution allows lawmakers more freedom to design public education than its school boards and teacher unions would have us believe. So it’s no surprise that what is “public” today includes a largely charter school system in New Orleans, four publicly funded private-school-choice programs, a recovery school district, and the emergence of online charter schools.

The consolation for the families who opted for school choice is that this was always going to be decided by the Louisiana Supreme Court

That’s why it was frustrating to see a state judge declare late Friday that Louisiana’s newest and largest voucher program is illegal because it diverts “vital public dollars” to private schools. According to Judge Timothy Kelley, the state was wrong to fund its new voucher program by the same revenue stream that provides a “minimum foundation” to its public elementary and secondary schools.

That was the same argument put forward by the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and the Louisiana School Boards Association when they sued to abolish the voucher program, which presently serves nearly 5,000 children in 113 private schools.

But what is the difference between privately operated charter schools and private schools accepting voucher-bearing students if each are...

Paul Basken
Diverse Schools Dilemma
The Diverse Schools Dilemma is a well-reasoned exploration of the topics of education, race, and demographics.

Mike did a great job with his new book, The Diverse Schools Dilemma.

I was raised in a close-in Boston suburb, at a time when Judge Arthur Garrity turned everything upside down with his forced busing order. J. Anthony Lukas helped make that dilemma of school integration personal through his Pulitzer-winning masterpiece, Common Ground. A generation later, Mike has made the story practical by walking the reader through his own hands-on exploration of what school integration really means for a parent seeking the best both for his child and his wider society.

I now have two kids of my own and live in the D.C. area, so my wife and I essentially went through much of what Mike and his wife did in trying to make a local school choice that could provide both diversity and top-quality education. We, in fact, looked at some of the very same schools and...

The most misleading statistic in American education is the fact that just 4 percent of American children attend charter schools. A blip, this is! A rounding error! Totally insignificant!

What the national figure hides is the immense variation in charter school “market share” (or “penetration,” if you prefer) in cities around the nation—ranging from 0 percent in Seattle to 76 percent in New Orleans.

But a picture is worth a thousand words. Here, courtesy of a recent report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, is charter-school enrollment as a percentage of total public school enrollment, calculated by district. (The bigger the dot, the bigger the charter-school market share.)

NAPCS 2012 Market Share Map
Charter-school market share: The bigger the dot, the larger the percentage of charter enrollment.
Data from NAPCS study.

A few things are noteworthy:

  • At least when it comes to market share, charter schools are only a big deal in the Eastern half of the country. That’s surprising, as so much of the “entrepreneurial”
  • ...

We’re choosy

Mike and Adam celebrate school-choice victories in New Jersey and Race to the Top and worry about the battles ahead. Amber ponders state-mandated special-ed enrollment targets.

Amber's Research Minute

New York State Special Education Enrollment Analysis by CRPE - Download PDF

Jeb Bush at summit of Foundation for Excellence in Education
Jeb Bush pushed hard for putting the interests of children first.
Photo by Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/MCT/Getty Images

I don’t know whether his hat is edging into the 2016 presidential election ring, but I do know that Jeb Bush gave a heck of an education keynote on Tuesday morning at the national summit convened in Washington by his Florida-based Foundation for Excellence in Education.

At this annual bipartisan-but-predominantly-Republican soiree aimed at state legislators and other key ed-policy decision makers—this year’s was by far the largest and grandest of the five they’ve held so far—Bush pushed hard for putting the interests of children first and did so in language plainly intended to appeal across party lines. A later session, which I had the pleasure of “moderating,” brought much the same message from John Podesta of the Center for American Progress. Though nobody expects Podesta to vote Bush for president (or...

The new teacher contract in Newark has rightfully caused widespread celebration. It has earned praise from New Jersey’s governor and education commissioner, Newark’s mayor and superintendent, local and national labor leaders, and many others. There seems to be a consensus that a new day has dawned for public education in this troubled city.

    Chris Christie
    Gov. Chris Christie has shown that he is committed to helping Newark schools improve.
    Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The history of urban school improvement efforts suggests, however, that we ought to temper our enthusiasm. The roadside is littered with much-ballyhooed but ultimately unsuccessful attempts to fix failing inner-city schools.

But if reform leaders are willing to exploit the opportunity that lurks in the Newark contract, this could turn out to be a pivot point in the nation’s decades-long effort to reform urban schooling.

This contract is an enormous improvement over its predecessors: It reforms compensation by prioritizing effectiveness instead of seniority. It speeds the implementation of improved...

The National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), a top-notch group of entities that are serious about sponsoring quality charter schools, issued a call this week for authorizers and state laws to be more proactive in closing failing schools and opening great new ones. They call it the One Million Lives campaign.

Figure 1
Figure 1: Number of Ohio charter schools in the lowest 15 percent of state performance.
Source: 2011-12 Ohio Report Card Results.

At the kickoff, NACSA President Greg Richmond said, “In some places, accountability unfortunately has been part of the charter model in name only. If charters are going to succeed in helping improve public education, accountability must go from being rhetoric to reality.” He then called for a policy agenda aimed at achieving both smarter growth and stronger accountability in these ways:

  • Establishing strong statewide authorizers that promote both high-quality growth and accountability,
  • Writing into law standards for authorizers that are based on NACSA’s excellent Principles & Standards for Quality Charter School Authorizing,
  • Placing performance expectations for
  • ...

The Thanksgiving holiday may have drawn attention away from some noteworthy analysis by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which called into question whether states should mandate special-education enrollment targets for charter schools, as New York State has done.

Why? Consider what CRPE found when it compared special-education enrollment patterns at charter schools and traditional schools throughout New York:

  • Enrollment patterns of high-need students at charter middle and high schools are indistinguishable from those at school districts;
  • Whatever discrepancy exists, it’s found mostly between charter schools and district schools at the elementary level;
  • And there is variation among charter authorizers; some authorizers oversee charters whose special education enrollments mirror those at district schools.

In other words, CRPE argues, a statewide difference in charter and district enrollments is too simplistic of a comparison. But even analyzing the variation at each grade level is no easy task. For instance, why would charter elementary schools concerned about their performance marks discriminate against special-education students if state testing doesn’t begin until the third grade? Could it be that charter schools are less likely to identify a student as having special needs (as the New York City Charter School Center has suggested) or...

It is difficult to overstate the findings from CREDO’s just-released study of charter schools in New Jersey. The stakes could not have been higher, and the results could not have been better, especially in Newark.

Charter opponents will find these results impossible to dismiss.

But first, consider the forces aligned against the charter sector in the Garden State. Charter schools are frequently under attack across the nation, but the aggression has been particularly acute in New Jersey of late.

Critics of reform in Newark accuse charter supporters of trying to “privatize” education and worse. Nearly as fierce has been the assault from anti-charter forces in the suburbs.

Then there are the many powerful establishment organizations—membership associations and so forth—that oppose charters to the hilt.

I seriously, if unwittingly, raised the stakes in recent days. I pointed out the predictably dismal turnaround results from the federal SIG program, arguing that a charter new-start and replication/explanation strategy was far likelier to lead to more high-performing seats.

Then I wrote a piece for the NY Daily News, in which I put the Newark school district on notice, arguing that...