Charters & Choice

It may seem absurd that one of California’s worst-performing school districts can kill the state’s finest charter school network. But that is the reality facing the 650 mostly poor and minority, but very high-achieving students enrolled at the American Indian Model charter schools. The Oakland Unified School District voted 4-3 last month to shut down the network after a state audit reported that a lack of financial controls allowed the charter’s former principal and chief executive, Ben Chavis, to improperly enrich himself with millions of dollars of school business.

It is, however, hard to see how the Oakland district could have responded differently. The audit, which was issued in June 2012, concluded that Chavis was able to channel $3.8 million from school accounts to his personal business interests—mostly because the charter’s governing board “failed to maintain and exercise its responsibilities, authority, and control.”

Indeed, the audit showed that a charismatic and assertive school leader had control over American Indian’s governing board instead of the other way around.  Auditors found multiple examples of self-dealing and conflicts of interest in transactions that benefitted Chavis’ consulting, real estate, and construction enterprises—transactions that often put Chavis in the position as landlord to the...

Over the last few weeks, we've witnessed the spectacle of “outrage” at learning that two major figures in the school reform wars (Leonie Haimson and Michelle Rhee) send their children to private schools.

I'm not interested in rehashing all of the usual debates. I do want to point out that there's public, and then there's “public.” In other words, some of the people expressing indignation, I suspect, may send their children to “public” schools that are much more “private” than most private schools. And starting in September, I will be one of those parents (as anyone who has read my book knows already).

Yes, it's true: Wood Acres Elementary, in Bethesda, Maryland, is a “private public school”—a term that Janie Scull and I coined in a 2010 report for the Fordham Institute. These are “public” schools that serve virtually no poor students. They are open to anyone—anyone who can afford to live in their catchment zones, that is. 

We found 2,800 such schools in America back then; I suspect the numbers haven't changed much since.

But here's what you might want to consider: New York City, where Haimson lives, has exactly zero such schools. Nashville, Tennessee, where...

GadflyThe National Education Association is suing Florida for its teacher-evaluation policy; specifically, the fact that the Sunshine State engages in the shady practice of evaluating teachers based on students or subjects that they don’t teach. Florida state superintendent Tony Bennett noted that there is currently a law under consideration that would call for “evaluating teachers only on the students and subjects they teach”; this should certainly pass.

Tennessee governor Bill Haslam, for the second time in as many years, killed his own voucher proposal when it became clear that his state’s legislators were interested in taking it to scale. The Wall Street Journal, in a scathing rebuke, accused Haslam of cynically trying to “appease unions while claiming to support school choice.” That’s about right—and as foolish a move by a Republican official to throttle choice as is the RNC’s assault on standards.

On Tuesday, New York students completed their first day of new Common Core–aligned tests, after controversy over whether they had been taught the necessary content (a legitimate beef) and a blitz of advertisements...



The Columbus Dispatch is reporting today that Gahanna-Jefferson Public Schools will be discontinuing their experiment with charter school creation at the end of this school year. The school of 110 students in grades 9-12 will be absorbed into the district. The main reason cited: once start-up funds ran out ($450,000 from the federal government’s Public Charter School Program), Gahanna Community School’s board and staff were unable to maintain operations with the fractional per-pupil funding provided monthly by the state to all charter schools. Upper Arlington closed a charter school for similar reasons last year.

While it is tempting for me to snark about “unscrupulous charter operators” (believe me, I wrote that blog post and it was really funny) and to rage that the federal government should get its start-up money back from Gahanna-Jefferson and Upper Arlington too, I think it is more important to talk about the object lesson that this situation presents.

The fiscal picture painted by the board and staff of GSC is the daily reality of almost all charter schools across the state: once the start-up funds are spent, the per pupil funding provided for school operations by the state – with no...

I get lots of emails from aspiring ed-policy wonks, so this first bullet is for that wayward crew. Understanding the annual federal-budget dance is key to your decent into wonkery. The pre-release, behind-the-scenes process is really quite interesting—e.g., negotiations between the Department, White House, OMB, and other associated agencies. That culminates in a series of documents (from formal congressional submissions to accessible fact sheets) that provide a picture of the administration’s priorities, or at least what the administration wants to public convey as its priorities. (This is just Phase 1; Congress takes over from here.) You might want to spend 30 minutes familiarizing yourself with these products and their contents—you can get your feet wet on this annual ritual and impress your friends at dinner parties! (“Once again, ED’s trying to make a go of TLIF, huh?”)

Per the budget request itself, the initial documents are generally purposely gauzy and vague; this is, after all, partially a public-relations exercise. So there’s only so much we can know until all of the gory details are released. But here are some quick thoughts: More for i3? Quietly chugging along but very interesting ARPA angle. Money for charter replications? Great, but...

Compromise is rarely considered a political virtue. That’s why political analyst Peter Wehner made a distinction between compromise and prudence. “Compromise can’t be judged in the abstract,” Wehner wrote for Commentary. “It can only be assessed in particular circumstances. It takes wisdom and statesmanship to discern when to hold firm (on fundamental principles) and when to give ground (on tactics and secondary issues).”

The description helps us parse two different outcomes on school choice legislation in two states: Mississippi and Tennessee. In the former, at least one charter school advocate bemoaned the “compromised bill” that went last week to Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, a bill that finally allows start-up charters in the Magnolia State and an independent state authorizer but also allows better-performing districts to effectively neuter that new state body. In the latter, Tennessee’s Republican Governor Bill Haslam decided last week to pull his favored voucher bill before letting any legislative members of his party amend it. Haslam sought a limited voucher program for low-income students in low-performing districts, whereas Republicans lawmakers wanted to enlarge it to serve more families.

No doubt Haslam wants private school choice in the Volunteer State. Last year,...

This is Jurassic Park

Mike and Dara go beyond the Triassic in this week’s podcast, discussing a pre-K tax on tobacco, the new NGSS, and Texas’s two-step on graduation standards. Amber gets competitive with a discussion of school choice in Milwaukee.

Amber's Research Minute

Principals’ perceptions of competition for students in Milwaukee schools,” by Susanna Loeb and Matthew Kasman, Education Finance and Policy 8 (1): 43-73

GadflyThe Obama administration’s budget proposal was late to the party and is mostly a big yawn—at least when it comes to K–12 education. The big-ticket items, such as they are: level-funding for Title I and IDEA; new efforts to promote STEM education and tweak American high schools; and a Race to the Top for higher education. The real firepower is reserved for the President’s well-designed Pre-K plan, which would be the biggest federal expansion into early childhood since the creation of Head Start, to be financed by a huge increase in cigarette taxes. Were it not for Congressional realities, it might even be something to get excited about.

After changing part of the exam it uses to determine which four-year-olds are eligible for the coveted gifted-and-talented slots in its public schools, New York City has (very slightly) reduced the number of children who qualify. Yet most of the high scorers still came from the city’s richer areas—a problem, given that they altered the test precisely in order to combat the influence of income-related factors, such as...

This new study on school competition examines which types of schools experience more competitive pressure and asks Milwaukee principals which schools they identify as their primary source of competition. The analysts use Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) administrative, student-transfer, and achievement data for 2007–08 through 2009–10, as well as geographic data and MPS principal survey findings from 2010. Four key results arise: First, 45 percent of the surveyed principals reportedly experienced a lot of competitive pressure from other schools, 30 percent some, 14 percent a little, and 11 percent none. The schools of those who perceived some or a lot of pressure tended to have more poor children and those with special needs. Secondly, and surprisingly, the extent to which principals feel pressure is not related to geographic factors, such as the number of nearby schools serving the same grades. Analysts muse that this may be a result of the robust choice system in Milwaukee that includes transportation supports. However, the extent of competition is related to transfer rates out of a school and student performance—with low- and high-achieving schools feeling more pressure than those in the middle. Third, when asked to identify their biggest sources of competition, principals tended to point to schools that were similar to...

John Dues

Aaron and I responded to recent anti-charter school pieces that have popped up in some of the state’s newspapers in Hard to Kill Charter School Canards. As follow up to this, we’d like to share the first part of a letter written by educator John Dues.  John is school director for Columbus Collegiate Academy in Columbus and he was inspired to respond to some of the (mis)information shared in a letter to the editor of the Columbus Dispatch by Maureen Reedy over the weekend. We are happy to share his thoughtful insights. -Terry Ryan

This letter is written in response to the Letter to the Editor you wrote that appeared in the Columbus Dispatch on Saturday, April 6, 2013. My sincere hope is that you read this letter with an open mind and seriously consider a viewpoint different from your own on the topic of charter schools.

I believe we could learn a lot from each other, and I would be more than willing to sit down over coffee to discuss the contents of this letter. I am also extending an open invitation to you to visit Columbus Collegiate Academy, a high-performing, high poverty charter school on...