Charters & Choice

Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller recently published an opinion that should be good news for school-choice advocates who favor customized education for low-income students. He wrote this week that students opting for the state’s voucher program should also be allowed to receive special-education services, if eligible, at their local public school.

Photo from the Associated Press

This undoubtedly would anger two camps of school-choice opponents: 1) those who believe that private schools accepting voucher-bearing students must offer the same special-education services found at traditional public schools and 2) those who believe that once students leave the public school system, they give up everything it has to offer.

Of course, most choice opponents occupy both camps, and that goes for Indiana Superintendent Glenda Ritz, who this summer asked the attorney general a loaded question: Must a private school participating in the state’s voucher program offer special-education services to eligible students who qualify for both a voucher and a new special-education grant the state legislature approved this year?

Zoeller said no, writing in his opinion that private schools might refuse voucher students altogether if they have to administer special-education services...

 
 

The rapid gentrification of many large American cities represents a triumph and an opportunity for Republicans—a triumph because it was mainly Republican ideas (welfare reform, aggressive crime-fighting tactics, pro-growth policies) that set the trend in motion, and an opportunity because the wealthier and (frankly) whiter new residents are more likely to vote for the GOP.

Cities are for strivers

Yet a natural Republican constituency—parents with children—continues to exit cities once their kids reach school age. This is bad for Republicans, to be sure, but it’s also bad for cities, as much capital—human, social, and financial—decamps for the suburbs and beyond.

So why are twenty-something, single city-dwellers turning into thirty- and forty-something, suburban moms and dads? It’s education, stupid: the paucity of high-quality urban public schools.

Some hope that current education-reform efforts—raising standards, holding teachers accountable, and creating more charter schools—could help persuade these parents to keep the faith with big cities. And they might, at the margins. But most of these efforts don’t address the fundamental challenge that urban schools face: the diversity of their student population.

Let me be clear: I don’t mean racial or ethnic diversity, which is a huge plus for everybody—the students, the parents, and society at large. Nor is it exactly socioeconomic diversity. The big challenge is academic diversity: Students are coming into school with vastly different levels of academic preparation. Finding a way to make sure that everyone gets what they need—including affluent children, who will tend to come in far ahead of their peers—is no easy trick. If you’re a Kindergarten teacher and some of your students are already reading Harry Potter while others don’t even know their letters, how on earth do you handle that?

Yet the typical liberal response to perplexed professional parents who worry about whether their children will be challenged? “Tough luck.” They sneer at “gifted-and-talented” programs, which they view as inherently elitist and inequitable; they deplore “selective-admissions” schools, like Stuyvesant; and they pore over charter school data for any signs of “skimming” the best and brightest.

The left’s leveling impulses, then, practically beg parents of means to choose private schools or pack their bags for the ‘burbs. But this approach is also problematic for the poor—in particular, “striving” families and their children who want to defy the odds and use academic excellence as a springboard to the middle class. Note the derision shown to the Success Academies, for instance—a non-profit network of Gotham charter schools that’s getting remarkable results with a mostly low-income student population. Rather than applauding Eva Moskowitz’s plans to expand to one hundred schools citywide, they work at every turn to slow her down.

The urban left’s brand of “equity” is perverse. It focuses on equality of outcomes rather than equality of opportunity. It rejects the notion that fairness demands every child to be challenged, to learn something new each day, to fulfill his or her own potential. And it pretends that pushing ambitious students to the suburbs is somehow a more equitable outcome than providing city schools that serve their needs.

All of this offers an opening for the right, and for Republicans, who should become the Party of Strivers, as David Brooks argues. Brooks wrote in another column that we should figure out “what exactly does it take these days to rise? What exactly happens to the ambitious kid in Akron at each stage of life in this new economy? What are the best ways to rouse ambition and open fields of opportunity?”

Here’s what: Republicans in general, and urban Republicans in particular, should call for the expansion of gifted-and-talented programs while maintaining tough, but fair, entrance requirements; charter schools that embrace a college-prep, high-expectations, no-excuses culture; selective-admission magnet schools that allow our most academically prepared students to push one another; and merit-based scholarships at flagship public universities.

Parents of high-achieving students—whether they be rich or poor, newcomers or old-timers—deserve schools that will challenge their children. If they don’t find them in the city, they will move. It’s up to Republicans to offer another alternative.

This piece originally appeared in slightly different form on the Manhattan Institute’s Public Sector Inc.

 
 

The Washington Post (and many others) roundly decried the Department of Justice’s petition to disallow Louisiana from awarding vouchers to students in public schools under federal desegregation orders. Surely it’s folly to block students (mainly black and all poor) from escaping failing schools to which they would otherwise be condemned—and it’s outrageous to claim that this is good for civil rights. As 90 percent of the kids benefiting from Louisiana’s voucher program are African American, Gadfly cannot help but suspect political motives. We join the chorus: Shame on the Department of Justice for standing between disadvantaged children and their education dreams.

Massachusetts, with the nation’s highest-performing school system, models the power of comprehensive standards-based reform. As noted by the New York Times, the Bay State’s standards—like the Common Core—refrain from prescribing curriculum and pedagogy, meaning that teachers decide how to get their pupils across the finish line. There’s far more to the Massachusetts story, of course, including a higher bar, more money, charter schools, individual student-level accountability and tougher requirements to enter teaching. But it’s a story worth telling and retelling.

As the time draws closer for Congress to focus on reauthorizing the federal Institute of Education Sciences, the New York Times did a decent job of profiling the difference that it has made, particularly its emphasis on randomized studies—i.e. research based on clinical trials that test, for example, whether particular education textbooks or technologies are more effective than others. One disappointment? Most educators have no idea the data exist.

Amanda Ripley delivers a familiar admonishment to a new generation of Americans: The (mediocre) schools we have are the schools we deserve. In her first—and quite excellent—book on education, Ripley skillfully communicates this message through the experiences of teenaged U.S. exchange students inserted into three countries—Finland, South Korea, and Poland—for one year. All three countries have made recent leaps and bounds in educational achievement, and all three approach education in different ways: Finland’s “Utopia” model relies on highly trained, autonomous teachers and effective school choice. South Korea’s “Pressure Cooker” approach demands hard work in an ultra-competitive environment. And Poland’s “Metamorphosis,” which began in the late 1990s, focuses on rigor; accountability; high expectations; and district, school, and classroom autonomy. So with her veteran-journalist cap firmly in place, the author visits each of the three students in their host countries to compare their experiences—and perhaps gain insight as to why American students have lost ground. According to Ripley, American culture is a root cause of our education failings, including what parents want in a school, what kids learn at home, or officials’ unwillingness (or inability) to change teacher training, accountability systems, and curriculum. For instance, unlike the Finnish, we shield our children from failure and we don’t train our teachers like we train doctors, with ultra-selective schools, challenging graduate programs, and commensurate pay. And unlike all three of the nations featured, we lack a sense of urgency and the conviction that effective, rigorous education is the only thing that can prevent us from falling further behind in the global economy. Ripley’s message may not be new, but she imparts it with uncommon freshness, objectivity, and verve.

SOURCE: Amanda Ripley, The Smartest Kids in the World (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2013).

The future is competency-based learning, according to this new, almost hour-long audio documentary from American RadioWorks—and that future is upon us. For generations, wealthy parents in the U.S. and abroad have employed private tutors to deliver individualized instruction to their children, thus recognizing and acting upon a truth long ignored by our school system: Not all children learn at the same pace or in the same way. In the past, tutoring has proved difficult to scale. But the creators of this documentary hail the Carpe Diem campus in Indianapolis and Moorseville Middle School in Moorseville, NC, for cracking the code with the use of modern education technology. Moorseville has a well-implemented “one-to-one” laptop initiative that seems to have played a role in the district’s complete elimination of a sizable gap in the high school graduation rates of its white and black students. The Carpe Diem schools have found a formula for student success in a more radical shift, largely replacing traditional classroom learning with computer labs and project-based group learning. Both Carpe Diem and Moorseville traded larger class sizes for fewer, more committed teachers, empowered to focus on individual students rather than providing basic instruction or grading simple assignments—most of which is done by technology, which also tracks student progress and allows students to learn at their own pace. The documentary makers remind us that technology is only as good as its utilization. The same might be said of competency-based learning. Nevertheless, a system that allows teachers to teach and students to work at their own levels of ability and prior achievement is surely promising.

SOURCE: Emily Hanford and Stephen Smith, “One Child at a Time,” American RadioWorks, American Public Media, August 2013.

When it comes time to pick a career path, young Americans certainly don’t perceive teaching to be the fairest of them all—in any sense of the term. This new report from the Manhattan Institute’s Center for State and Local Leadership emphasizes how pension systems are especially unfair toward young teachers and examines the effects of two cost-neutral pension reforms on teacher compensation for the ten largest U.S. public school districts. The first reform is switching from the traditional defined-benefit (DB) pension system, under which teachers accumulate little retirement wealth until later in their careers, to a “cash-balance” plan, which allows employees to accrue retirement compensation smoothly over their careers. The second reform—the “cost-equivalent” reform—decreases the share of teachers’ salaries devoted to retirement savings so that it matches the private-sector average, moving the difference into take-home salary. The authors concede that traditional DB pension systems do offer teachers the possibility of more retirement money. In most districts, however, that higher amount for a few comes at a cost to a great majority: The loss to teachers who choose to leave the profession after less than three decades exceeds the gains to those who remain. Indeed, the system is constructed on the assumption that many will drop out prior to receiving full benefits. That’s clearly off-putting to smart young folks considering taking up teaching, which means it’s also bad for teacher quality. The report’s recommendations do not address the elephant in the room—namely the huge unfunded pension liabilities that already face most school systems (and their states). But the recommendations are sound and provocative as far as they go. Modeling the teacher-compensation system after private-sector compensation systems is common sensical—and fairer overall.

SOURCE: Josh McGee and Marcus A. Winters, Better Pay, Fairer Pensions: Reforming Teacher Compensation, Center for State and Local Leadership, Civic Report No. 79 (New York, NY: Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, September 2013).

Mike and Michelle join the WaPo in decrying the DOJ’s anti-voucher antics and debate who’s worse: private school parents or those who settle for failing schools. With Amber off saying “I do,” Dara takes over the research minute with a tale of unfair teacher-pension policies.

Growing numbers of parents, educators, and school administrators are calling for a local "opt-out" from state tests and accountability systems.

Is this opt-out a cop-out? Or would students benefit from a system that their own teachers and principals devised? Should all schools be offered an opt-out alternative, one in which they propose to be held accountable to a different set of measures? What about opt-outs for high-achieving schools or schools with good reason to be different? Would such a system move us toward or away from the goals of the Common Core? As for charter schools, must they continue to be tethered to uniform statewide accountability systems? Or should we rekindle the concept of customizing each school's charter and performance expectations?

The Washington Post (and many others) roundly decried the Department of Justice’s petition to disallow Louisiana from awarding vouchers to students in public schools under federal desegregation orders. Surely it’s folly to block students (mainly black and all poor) from escaping failing schools to which they would otherwise be condemned—and it’s outrageous to claim that this is good for civil rights. As 90 percent of the kids benefiting from Louisiana’s voucher program are African American, Gadfly cannot help but suspect political motives. We join the chorus: Shame on the Department of Justice for standing between disadvantaged children and their education dreams.

Massachusetts, with the nation’s highest-performing school system, models the power of comprehensive standards-based reform. As noted by the New York Times, the Bay State’s standards—like the Common Core—refrain from prescribing curriculum and pedagogy, meaning that teachers decide how to get their pupils across the finish line. There’s far more to the Massachusetts story, of course, including a higher bar, more money, charter schools, individual student-level accountability and tougher requirements to enter teaching. But it’s a story worth telling and retelling.

As the time...

What (Ed-Reformer) Parents Want

What (ed-reformer) parents want

What (ed-reformer) parents want. Read What Parents Want: Education Preferences and Trade-offs and take the quiz to see if you fall into one of our parent categories.

 

It has always puzzled me why the Rev. H.K. Matthews hasn’t drawn more attention for his support for private school choice. His name may not carry the weight of King, Randolph, or Rustin, but it’s doubtful that the civil-rights movement would have quickened in Florida at the pace it did without the sacrifices Matthews made.

Chief among those sacrifices was Matthews’ freedom: When he was president of the Pensacola Council of Ministers in the 1960s, he led sit-ins at segregated lunch counters throughout Northwest Florida that led to his arrest—thirty-five times. He was gassed and beaten by police on the march with Martin Luther King, Jr., from Selma to Montgomery, and he was blacklisted from jobs after protesting police brutality in the Florida panhandle. More recently, Matthews helped to lead protesters who bemoaned the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial.

So when Matthews calls school choice an extension of the civil rights movement, that assertion ought to at least merit a few high-profile headlines.

At least the Birmingham News recognized the allure of Matthews’s position. This week, the News published commentary from Matthews supporting the new Alabama tax-credit-scholarship program and reprimanding the Southern Poverty Law Center...

 
 

This groundbreaking study finds that nearly all parents seek schools with a solid core curriculum in reading and math, an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education, and the development in students of good study habits, strong critical thinking skills, and excellent verbal and written communication skills. But some parents also prefer specializations and emphases that are only possible in a system of school choice.

  • Pragmatists (36 percent of K–12 parents) assign high value to schools that, “offer vocational classes or job-related programs.” Compared to the total parent population, Pragmatists have lower household incomes, are less likely themselves to have graduated from college, and are more likely to be parents of boys.
  • Jeffersonians (24 percent) prefer a school that “emphasizes instruction in citizenship, democracy, and leadership,” although they are no more likely than other parents to be active in their communities or schools.
  • Test-Score Hawks (23 percent) look for a school that “has high test scores.” Such parents are more likely to have academically gifted children who put more effort into school. They are also more likely to set high expectations for their children, push them to excel, and expect them to earn graduate degrees. Test-Score Hawks are
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Prepared for Delivery on August 28, 2013

Chairman Kelly, ladies and gentlemen. I’m Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy think tank in Washington, DC that also does on the ground work in your neighboring state of Ohio. (No football comments, please!)  At Fordham, we promote high-priority education reforms with a particular focus on standards-based reforms and school choice. I’ve worked in this field myself for many years, including more than a few fruitful go-rounds with you, Mr. Chairman, when you served on Governor John Engler’s staff back in the nineties.

I am glad that you have been holding these hearings and seriously considering whether Michigan should stick with the Common Core academic standards. I know you’ve heard from some folks who hope that you won’t. I hope that you will. Before getting into my eight top reasons, let me lay a few facts on the table regarding the Common Core:

These standards are clear, rigorous, and nationally and internationally benchmarked. They emphasize reading rigorous, high-quality literature in English class, plus nonfiction in history, science, and other courses. They also emphasize the fundamentals of mathematics. Properly taught and successfully learned, they will indeed produce...

 
 

The Justice Department may be the last major American institution that values racial integration for the sake of integration. Its lawyers have worked to encase aging federal school-desegregation orders in cast iron while families—both white and black—have sought more flexibility, quality schools, and choices as to where their children will attend.

DOJ attorneys may tolerate some flexible plans aimed at voluntary desegregation, such as magnet schools and other forms of public-school choice, but there’s one form of choice it seems the Obama Administration and its legal beagles will not accept: private-school vouchers.

Late last week, lawyers with the department’s Civil Rights Division petitioned a federal judge in Louisiana to stop the Bayou State’s new voucher program from spreading throughout the thirty-plus districts operating under federal desegregation orders.  During the 2012-13 school year, Louisiana awarded vouchers to nearly 600 students from these districts, and DOJ asserts that their exit caused thirty-four public schools in thirteen districts to stray from “the desired degree of student racial diversity.”

To regain that “desired degree,” the department wants vouchers prohibited in court-supervised districts, unless the cognizant judge grants permission. That may be in keeping with the Obama Administration’s hostility to private-school choice, but...

 
 

Driving Quality: Can charter incubators solve the problem of too many mediocre charter schools?

Driving Quality: Can charter incubators solve the problem of too many mediocre charter schools?

Recorded December 7, 2011

Communities across the country are struggling to meet parental demand for high quality school options, including high-performing charter schools. Yet, with hundreds of new charter schools opening every year, not nearly enough of them offer the quality education that parents crave and kids deserve. Indeed, far too many fail to deliver education any better than the troubled neighborhood schools that they are meant as alternatives to.

But a new model for charter school growth has taken root in several cities and it appears to be boosting quality as well as quantity. Charter "incubators" are accelerating the launch and development of top-flight charter schools in communities that need them most. Incubators offer the promise of not only more school choice but schools that reliably deliver academic results.

Join us at the Fordham Institute to hear from leaders that are running some of the best of these new organizations. Co-sponsored by the Cities for Education Entrepreneurship Trust (CEE-Trust), this discussion will analyze the key findings from a new policy brief by Public Impact, and provide lessons on how federal, state and local policymakers can help launch new quality charter schools while encouraging the culling of weak ones.

Reform School: Tony Bennett

Reform School: Tony Bennett

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