Charters & Choice

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed legislation last week that places a one-year moratorium on new virtual charter schools outside Chicago and directs a state commission to study the effects and costs of virtual charters. These actions were clearly responses to suburban districts’ angst over the growing presence of K12 Inc. Relatedly, we’re sure that local bookstores favor blocking Amazon.com so that we might “better evaluate and understand” its impact. Is that next up?

Now in its fifth year, Menlo Park Academy in Cleveland—Ohio’s only charter school exclusively serving gifted children—is a haven for over 300 students, drawing K–8 youngsters from forty school districts in and beyond the Cleveland metro area. It's also the subject of a profile by award-winning journalist Ellen Belcher. To read more, visit the Ohio Gadfly Daily.

And now, from Nevada, a riddle about poor school-funding policy: What do you get when you add the third-largest fraction of English-language learner (ELL) students in the nation (a full fifth of Nevada’s 2010–11 student population) to a school-funding formula that doesn’t allot districts any extra state cash to educate said youngsters? Answer: Only 29 percent of the state’s ELL students in the graduating class...

When Jessica Hockett and I embarked upon the Fordham-Hoover study that gave rise to our recent book Exam Schools, we predicted that the touchiest issue in the realm of selective-admission public schools would turn out to be how, exactly, they choose their pupils.

The selective-admission quandary
Private education as we have known it is on its way out.
Photo by scui3asteveo

We were right. This also turned out to be the aspect of these schools that was hardest for outsiders to get a handle on. In some cases, the admissions process is truly Byzantine. In some, it’s partly or totally out of the hands of the school itself. It takes many different forms, from strict adherence to rank-ordered scores on a single test to multi-dimensional and holistic evaluations akin to those practiced by selective private colleges.

As I talk with more people who are smack in the middle of this, it’s becoming clear to me that—to put it bluntly—you’re damned if you do...

FOREWORD

Like a rose in an unkempt garden, Menlo Park Academy stands out among Ohio’s hodgepodge of charter schools. First and foremost, Menlo excels academically—it was one of 30 charters in Ohio that earned an “Excellent” (A) or above state academic rating in 2011-12. (This, out of 302 rated charter schools.) Second, Menlo, which enrolls 300 or so students, is a regional school, drawing K-8 students from 40 school districts in and beyond the Cleveland metro area. And, Menlo is Ohio’s only charter school dedicated to educating gifted students.

Menlo’s uniqueness, together with Fordham’s long-standing interest in gifted and talented students, quickly attracted our attention. We’ve visited the school on two occasions, once with Fordham’s president Checker Finn. During these visits we learned much from Menlo’s leaders, teachers, parents and students about how the school has grown, as well as its current and future challenges. These discussions whetted our appetite to dig deeper—to learn more about Menlo’s story, its people, and how it goes about educating gifted students. We asked Ellen Belcher, an award-winning journalist formerly of the Dayton Daily News, to report the Menlo Park story and what she uncovered made us even more excited about the work...

Charter schools have captured nearly half of the public school market in Washington, D.C., but they have struggled to find suitable buildings to carry out their mission. That changed this week when D.C. mayor Vincent C. Gray announced that the District would give charter schools the chance to lease as many as sixteen former or soon-to-be-closed public school buildings. Charter advocates were pleased.

This move was long overdue. Charters have been attracting more and more of the public school market share in D.C. every year, but they have been grasping for adequate space to accommodate their burgeoning enrollments. Arguably, the D.C. charter sector would be even larger today if the city hadn’t hoarded vacant properties, prompting even the best charters to scrounge for makeshift facilities and place students on waitlists due to lack of space.

These challenges are familiar to charter schools in most cities. Despite the surge in charter school enrollments and the support the sector receives from both political parties, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has documented that charters 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,...

Following yesterday’s release of #10–#6, here are my top five takeaways from my Q&A sessions with USED, PARCC, and Smarter Balanced (most important is #1).

5.   The P is for prudence

The most noticeable aspect of PARCC’s response was its the-dog-that-didn’t-bark-ness. I expected, but didn’t get, more discussion of big successes to date.

Maybe they have gobs to peacock about but chose not to, wanting later results to speak for themselves (more on that in #4). People I trust say they are on the way to getting content, alignment, and rigor right. Maybe my questions didn’t set them up to brag about that stuff?

Or maybe my reaction is just a matter of relativity. When compared to SB’s earnest, 3,000-word, front-of-the-classroom response, heck, almost anything would’ve paled.

But maybe my affection for PARCC’s board and team has softened me. A cynic might say PARCC’s limited discussion of wins is a red flag.

I don’t find anything worrisome in PARCC’s response, so I won’t speculate. So I’ll say this: PARCC’s modest response about past activities probably won’t change too many Insiders’ right-track/wrong-track vote in either direction.

4.   Confidence about the...

Private education as we have known it is on its way out, at both the K–12 and postsecondary levels. At the very least, it's headed for dramatic shrinkage, save for a handful of places and circumstances, to be replaced by a very different set of institutional, governance, financing, and education-delivery mechanisms.

The end of private education
Private education as we have known it is on its way out.
Photo by Jim Young/Reuters

Consider today's realities. Private K–12 enrollments are shrinking—by almost 13 percent from 2000 to 2010. Catholic schools are closing right and left. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia, for example, announced in January that forty-four of its 156 elementary schools will cease operations next month. (A few later won reprieves.) In addition, many independent schools (day schools and especially boarding schools) are having trouble filling their seats—at least, filling them with their customary clientele of tuition-paying American students. Traditional nonprofit private colleges are also challenged to fill their classroom seats and dorms, a...

GadflyThe D.C. charter board has rejected the application for the proposed One World Public Charter School, whose high-status organizers include a former Sidwell Friends principal—due in part to “multiple grammatical and spelling errors” in the application. The board also rejected six other applications while okaying just two: a Montessori elementary and an adult-education program, both of which had been turned down in previous years and came back with stronger applications. Hat tip to the D.C. charter board for showing us how quality authorizing is done.

The online-education provider Khan Academy—with a little help from a $2.2 million Helmsley grant—has announced a plan to develop online, Common Core–aligned math tools for teachers and students. Hat tip number two!

After a bit of competition from within the ranks, the always-controversial Karen Lewis has been reelected to lead the Chicago Teachers Union. You get the champagne, we’ll get the party hats, and CTU will break out the celebratory lawsuits.

On Monday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced that three more states—Alaska, Hawaii, and West Virginia—will be granted...

Education’s Fiscal Cliff, Real or Perceived?In our 2005 report, Charter School Funding: Inequity’s Next Frontier, we wrote, “U.S. charter schools are being starved of needed funds in almost every community and state.” We backed that statement with funding data from seventeen states and twenty-seven districts. A 2010 report, tracking 2006–07 data, agreed. In the years since, some jurisdictions have moved to provide more equal funding levels to district and charter schools, yet large disparities remain. This paper—which will be published in the Journal of School Choice in September—examines the extent of those inequalities. Larry Maloney and colleagues tallied local, state, federal, and non-public revenue from 2007 to 2011 in Denver, Newark, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Milwaukee. The upshot: On average in 2011, charters received $4,000 less per pupil, per year, across all five studied locales, with gaps ranging from $2,700 in Denver to nearly $13,000 in D.C.—though jurisdictions with the largest spending gaps (Newark and D.C., specifically) actually narrowed the gap between district and charter funding during the study period while those that started...

Over on the Ohio Gadfly Daily, Fordham’s Jeff Murray has a meditation on what it’s like to lose the school-choice lottery. And it vividly reminds us that despite a flourishing school-choice movement, many families still struggle to access the one school they want for their children—even a public school.

Jeff and his wife have been reaching into their “middle-income pockets” to send their daughters to a “middle-of-the-road” private school because their public school options have been substandard. Until recently. An impressive STEM high school planned to expand to middle grades, and it was just what the Murray family wanted.

So it was for hundreds of others. And so a lottery would pick the lucky few from the many who longed for what Jeff called the Holy Grail, the best possible educational foundation for their kids. “We know we’d found it,” he writes. “And we can’t get in.”

Jeff has left us a lot to ponder, and not just because he has left us a powerful, personal reflection. What happens, he asks, when you don’t have the means or the knowledge of the system? What happens when all your choices are bad?

What happens, indeed?...

Wayward Sons, a recent report published by the policy think tank the Third Way, finds that the average girl’s educational and career outcomes have improved over time, while boys tend to be faring worse. This widening “gender gap,” the report contends, suggests “reason for concern” and “bodes ill for the well-being of recent cohorts of U.S. males.”

Explaining why boys are struggling now more than in past decades is, of course, extremely complex. One line of inquiry might consider the changing schooling experiences of boys and girls: Could it be that boys are becoming increasingly harder to educate? Might schools tailor education in ways unsuitable for boys’ needs? Or is it a mix of both?

Fair questions—and using Ohio’s special education data, I look at whether there’s any evidence that (a) boys might be harder to educate than girls and (b) whether schools might respond to difficult-to-educate boys by referring them into special education.

The Ohio data is nothing short of remarkable: There are considerably more boys identified as disabled than girls. (The referral and identification process is a joint effort between the parent and the school.) Statewide, 166,690 boys (65 percent) and 88,539 girls (35 percent)...

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