Charters & Choice

Twenty-five years into the American charter school movement there remains little research on the impact of charter authorizers, yet these entities are responsible for key decisions in the lives of charter schools, including whether they can open, and when they must close.

A new policy brief from Tulane University’s Education Research Alliance seeks to shed some light on authorizer impact in post-Katrina New Orleans, specifically does the process by which applications are reviewed help to produce effective charter schools? And after those schools have been initially authorized, does that process also shed light on which types of charter schools get renewed?

It merits repeating that the authorizing environment in New Orleans was unlike anywhere else in the country: Louisiana had given control of almost all New Orleans public schools to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) and the Recovery School District (RSD). Independent review of charter applications was mandated in state law, and tons of organizations applied to open new charters.

To facilitate the application process, BESE hired the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA). NACSA reviewed and rated applications, and in most cases BESE followed those recommendations. As the authors point out, NACSA is...

Politicians are wise to pay attention to public opinion data, but they are also responsible for crafting sound policies based on research and evidence. So what are they supposed to do when these two goods conflict?  

Anya Kamenetz at NPR was the first to highlight the contradiction between newly released poll results from PDK International and a variety of research related to school closures (“Americans Oppose School Closures, But Research Suggests They're Not A Bad Idea”). The PDK survey revealed that 84 percent of Americans believe that failing schools should be kept open and improved rather than closed. Sixty-two percent said that if a failing public school is kept open, the best approach to improvement is to replace its faculty and administration instead of increasing spending on the same team. In other words, the majority of Americans are firmly committed to their community schools—just not the people working in them.

These findings shouldn’t come as a huge surprise (as my colleague Robert Pondiscio pointed out here). No one wants to see a school closed, no matter how persistently underperforming. For many communities, schools offer not just an education, but a place...

Trump, Choice, and Discipline

On this week’s podcast, Robert Pondiscio, Brandon Wright, and David Griffith discuss Donald Trump’s school choice proposal and the national debate over school discipline. During the research minute, Amber Northern examines the effect of the charter school authorization process on school quality.

Amber's Research Minute

Whitney Bross and Douglas N. Harris, "The Ultimate Choice: How Charter Authorizers Approve and Renew Schools in Post-Katrina New Orleans," Education Research Alliance (September 2016).

 

Today, the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) announced that it would release the $71 million Charter School Program (CSP) grant awarded to Ohio last September, but with additional restrictions attached. The letter outlines "high-risk" special conditions for how Ohio's award can be spent. This includes excluding virtual charter schools, placing extra requirements on subgrants to dropout recovery charter schools, and a promise that USDOE will carefully monitor and ensure that Ohio completes its authorizer evaluations on time.

The federal CSP program dates back to 1994, and has been used to seed new charter schools across the U.S. as well as enable top-performing charter networks to grow and expand. In recent years, the CSP program has drawn broad bi-partisan support in Congress.

Ohio’s grant was put on hold shortly after it was announced, as the USDOE considered additional safeguards on how the funds would be spent. The Ohio Department of Education (ODE) revised its application in January 2016 to further describe the state’s charter accountability infrastructure. More recently, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Paolo DeMaria aggressively moved forward with charter sponsor evaluations—a key part of the state’s CSP application—despite attempts to delay them.

“We’re extremely pleased that the USDOE, after a...

GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump recently visited Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy, a charter school educating predominately minority and low-income children. I write not to comment on Mr. Trump’s candidacy, his thoughts on education policy, or even Ohio’s charter schools. Rather, this is my takeaway from the whole brouhaha—and be forewarned, it’s a wonky one: Ohio needs to return to a multi-year value-added measure.

Here’s why. Charter critics, media, and even a respected education reform group were quick to label Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy a “failure.” They relied on the school’s 2014–15 school report cards, which indeed showed low A–F grades. One glaring rating was the school’s F on Ohio’s value-added measure—not good at face value, because the measure is generally uncorrelated with student demographics and is therefore a metric that high-poverty schools can and do succeed on. (Value added gauges growth over time, regardless of students’ prior achievement.)

Keep in mind, however, that Ohio is presently basing value-added rating on one year of data—and those ratings can swing quite dramatically from year to year. Consider, for example, that Toledo Public Schools received an A rating on value added in 2013-14....

The Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to use “another indicator of student success or school quality,” in addition to test scores and graduation rates, when determining school grades. This is in line with the commonsensical notion that achievement in reading, writing, and math, while an important measure, surely doesn’t encapsulate the whole of what we want schools to accomplish for our young people. Reformers and traditional education groups alike have enthusiastically sought to encourage schools to focus more on “non-cognitive” attributes like grit or perseverance, or social and emotional learning, or long-term outcomes like college completion.

We at Fordham wondered whether charter schools might have something to teach the states about finding well-rounded indicators of school quality. After all, when charter schools first entered the scene in the pre-No Child Left Behind era, the notion was that their “charters” would identify student outcomes to be achieved that would match the mission and character of each individual school. Test scores might play a role, but they surely wouldn’t be the only measure.

As the head of Fordham’s authorizing shop in Dayton, I set out to determine which indicators the best charter school authorizers in the nation were using—measures that transcended...

June 4 marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of Minnesota's charter school law, the nation's first. In 1990, charter pioneer Ted Kolderie foresaw that chartering would "introduce the dynamics of choice, competition, and innovation into America's public school system, while at the same time ensuring that new schools serve broad public purposes."

A quarter-century later, forty-three states and the District of Columbia have passed such laws, and 6,800 charter schools educate almost three million children. Remarkably, charters account for the entire enrollment growth in American public education since 2006. District schools actually lost students during this time, as did some private schools.

Thus far, the mission that chartering has carried out with greatest success and acclaim has been to place tens of thousands of disadvantaged children on a path to college and upward mobility. In fact, charters today primarily serve low-income children of color—the kids who typically fare worst in big-district systems. For reasons of both equity and politics, many state charter laws give priority to schools that focus on such students, while some confine chartering to core cities.

University of Michigan economist Susan Dynarski put it this way: "In urban areas, where students are overwhelmingly low-achieving, poor, and nonwhite, charter schools...

It is not reasonable to expect research to resolve all issues or to erase all differences of opinion. We can but supply some information that we think reliable, and we will continue in the future to supply more. But it is up to the American people to decide what to do. The better their information, the wiser will be their decisions.

So wrote my colleague Chester Finn in his introduction to a compendium of research findings about teaching and learning.

The book was called What Works, and it was published in March.

March of 1986.

In the thirty years since, America has gone through several waves of reform, but we’re still talking about establishing research-based practices in our schools. Figuring out how to do this better is another way that reformers and funders might improve our education system without overhauling laws and regulations. (I’ve identified other tactics, besides policy change, for reforming our schools, namely building a new system via charters or education savings accounts; spurring disruptive innovations that target students, parents, or teachers directly; and investing in leadership.)

No, it’s not easy. Policy makers can exhort educators to adopt “evidence-based practices,”...

There are emerging signs, as I’ve written, that Ohio’s charter law overhaul (HB 2) is working. Significant numbers of poorly performing schools were closed last year, and Ohio’s charter school opening rate has slowed to an unprecedented crawl—both of which serve as evidence that the reforms are influencing sponsor behavior. This tightening of the sector on both ends, while painful for advocates, is absolutely necessary to improve quality overall and tame Ohio charters’ undeniably poor reputation.

It may seem odd that some Ohio charter school advocates are touting the sector’s contraction or this year’s stunted growth (an all-time low of eight new schools). It’s a form of cognitive dissonance shared by those of us who ardently support a family’s right to choose a school but are tired of watching the sector strain under the weight of its own terrible reputation and inflict collateral damage on those high-performing, achievement-gap-closing charter schools that first drew us to the cause.

Cognitive dissonance occurs when reality doesn’t sync up with theory, and when evidence points to something not working as well as the lofty idea of it. For instance, Ohio is a far different place than...

Irene Mone

A recent American Enterprise Institute study dispels myths about charter schools by comparing them to nearby district schools in a few novel ways.

Author Nat Malkus gathered data on school type, locale, enrollment, proficiency, discipline rates, demographics, and the number of English language learners and special education students they serve. Sources included the National Center for Education Statistics, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, and EDfacts.

Instead of looking at large groups of charter and districts schools across the country or a state, as charter opponents are wont to do, Malkus compares each charter school to five neighboring district schools that a given charter student might otherwise attend. Obviously, this makes for much more of an apples-to-apples comparison.

A recurring theme throughout virtually all of Malkus’s analyses is the great amount of variance between charter schools. He compares randomly selected district schools, which he terms “reference schools,” to five neighboring district schools, just as he did with the charters. Through the study’s various lenses—school discipline, student enrollment, achievement, or something else—charter schools are repeatedly shown to differ more from one another than district schools do. (There is also more variance between charters than between charter schools and their...

Pages