Charters & Choice

This is the second in a series of essays marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of America’s first charter school law. These commentaries are informed and inspired by our forthcoming book (co-authored with Bruno V. Manno), Charter Schools at the Crossroads: Predicaments, Paradoxes, Possibilities, to be published this fall by Harvard Education Press. Read the other essays here, here, here, and here.

Supporting charter schools requires tough love. It isn’t enough to create them and let kids attend them. They also need to be run with integrity; their books need to balance; their pupils must be safe; and above all, their academic achievement has to be strong, especially when gauged by student growth.

Some of America’s highest-achieving schools are charters, but so are some of its worst. Averaging across all 6,800 of them, some critics declare that their performance is roughly equal to their district counterparts. But such a superficial analysis ignores their variability—the reality that they range from dismal to superb. Let’s look a little more closely.

State variance

A quarter-century in, charter schools are still absent from seven states, and seventeen other jurisdictions have fewer than fifty each. Forty-four states have charter-enabling laws on the books, but...

Earlier this week, the Ohio Department of Education announced a new award for schools that exceeded expectations for student growth, the “Momentum Award.” Any school or district earning straight As on the state’s value-added measures was eligible, assuming it had at least two value-added subgroups (an idea my colleague Aaron explored last year). One hundred and sixty-five of Ohio’s 4,200 schools earned the recognition in its inaugural round.[1] The state also recognized schools and districts earning all As on every report card measure—forty-six schools and two districts achieved this outstanding feat.

We’re most excited about the Momentum Award because it gives credit to schools that make significant contributions to student growth regardless of where students enter in terms of raw achievement. In addition to earning an overall A, winning schools made gains with at least two of the following subgroups: students with disabilities, students who are low-achieving, and gifted students—populations that are often underserved or overlooked.  

It’s been said time and time again that growth measures are essential to any state’s accountability system because they show the contribution a school makes to individual student learning and because they...

  • At the same time we wrapped up our Wonkathon on parental choice under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the Washington Post’s Jay Mathews published a column on the new law’s implications for school accountability. With authority ostensibly withdrawn from the Department of Education, he wonders which measures—particularly non-academic ones—state-level officials will use to determine whether schools and districts doing right by their students. It’s a question that we originally asked in our accountability system design competition this February, yielding novel proposals for student satisfaction questionnaires, school climate surveys, and the tracking of chronic absenteeism, among others. Mathews’s take is no less rewarding.
  • Meanwhile, developments in Denver are also providing a real-time examination of issues we’ve been exploring this month in our national commentary. District officials there have unveiled a new, three-phase framework for initiating the shuttering of underperforming schools, echoing the recent debate between Fordham’s Mike Petrilli and the University of Arkansas’s Jay Greene on the utility—or futility—of relying on test data for closures. (Jay struck a deeply skeptical note on “distant authorities” using such information to overrule parental demand, while Mike was more bullish on what regulators can learn from test scores.)
  • ...

A new policy brief from the National Alliance for Public Charter schools takes up the contentious issue of “backfilling”—the practice of enrolling new students when existing ones leave. Should charter schools be engaged in backfilling? If so, when do they enroll those students? At prescribed entry points? At will? Or never?

The paper highlights a range of existing approaches to backfilling taken by states, authorizers, and charter operators. Massachusetts passed legislation requiring all charters in the state to fill any vacancy up to February 15 except seats in the second half of a school’s grade span. For example, if a Bay State K–5 charter school has a vacancy in grades K–2 before February 15, they are compelled to fill it; if a seat goes empty in grades 3–5, it’s at the school’s discretion. Washington, D.C. is playing with a new funding model that creates strong financial incentives to backfill. “The goal is to allow for multiple membership counts at all public schools so schools can be compensated for the students currently enrolled, as opposed to those who never showed up or who left mid-year,” the report notes. At the authorizer level, Indiana’s Public Charter School Board requires charters to use...

A new study by Pat Wolf and a few of his graduate students is a formal meta-analysis of the impacts of voucher programs on math and reading achievement. It attempts to set the voucher record straight in the face of conflicting messages coming out of academia, think tanks, and the press.

The authors go through a litany of prior reviews of voucher achievement effects and deem them insufficient, primarily because they include less rigorous studies or omit relevant, rigorous studies. Moreover, they result in divergent conclusions, vacillating from no effect to positive effect to a mix.

Wolf’s meta-analysis, however, includes only experimental studies or randomized control trials—the “gold standard.” They include all such studies ever conducted on voucher programs (both inside and outside the United States) that focused on participant effects and measured test score outcomes in either math or reading, which they found primarily through a comprehensive search of library databases and Google Scholar. (Studies that used outcomes such as graduation rates and college attainment were excluded, as were those not published in English or with English translations.) Included programs could be publicly  or privately funded, or funded indirectly via tax credit scholarships. Ultimately, nineteen studies representing eleven programs met these...

In theory, competition has the potential to boost quality and lower prices. But how is this theory working in education? This report from the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice provides an overview of the research on competition in American K–12 education and offers suggestions to enhance the competitive environment.  

The report finds that competition in the form of charters, vouchers, and tax credits does inspire competitive gains, but these gains are relatively small. An in-depth literature review reveals that forty of the forty-two studies on the impact of competition on public school students’ test scores find neutral-to-moderately-positive effects. These findings run counter to one of the most common arguments against choice programs—namely, that school alternatives do academic harm to those “left behind.”

The report also examines whether school choice’s ability to exert market pressure decreases educational costs. While the answer to that question is unclear, the report did note a discrepancy in the efficiency—defined as effectiveness per dollar—between traditional public and choice options. Charter schools appear to be doing more with less; although they receive about 28 percent less funding per student than local district schools, they are achieving greater student gains. According to a study by...

Alex Medler

Editor's note: This is the final post in Fordham's 2016 Wonkathon. We've asked assorted education policy experts to answer this question: What are the "sleeper provisions" of ESSA that might encourage the further expansion of parental choice, at least if advocates seize the opportunity? Prior entries can be found herehereherehereherehereherehere, here, and here.

I nominate one of the smallest pieces of the ESSA as a potential high-leverage point for choice. Hidden in the Charter School Program (CSP) amid language shaping the grants administered by State Education Agencies (SEAs) is a little provision that could eventually lead to big changes regarding school choice. States can now spend 7 percent of their grants on system-level changes to support charter school expansion and quality.

Most everyone in the charter world knows that the CSP received more than $330 million this year. The biggest portion of that money goes to SEAs in the form of grants (which underwrite the sub-grants the SEAs themselves award to would-be charters in order to meet start-up costs). Let’s consider how a small bit—if people are smart about how they use it—could drive big change.

The SEA grant program traditionally allowed...

Brian Kisida

Editor's note: This is the tenth post in Fordham's 2016 Wonkathon. We've asked assorted education policy experts to answer this question: What are the "sleeper provisions" of ESSA that might encourage the further expansion of parental choice, at least if advocates seize the opportunity? Prior entries can be found herehereherehereherehereherehere, and here.

There isn’t much in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) that explicitly addresses school choice. Still, there will likely be indirect effects from some ESSA policies. Specifically, I think there are two key areas where ESSA will have important implications for school choice. First, both the weighted student funding pilot program and the new requirement to report school-level expenditures will further solidify the idea that dollars should follow students, which will likely lead to increases in school choice funding levels. Second, the requirement for more diverse measures in state accountability systems aligns with school choice’s focus on innovation and specialization. With academic success defined across a broader set of outcomes, the ability for choice schools to pursue broader academic outcomes will be less constrained.

School-level spending transparency and student-based budgeting

Under ESSA, states will be required to report expenditures at the school...

Jordan Posamentier

Editor's note: This is the ninth post in Fordham's 2016 Wonkathon. We've asked assorted education policy experts to answer this question: What are the "sleeper provisions" of ESSA that might encourage the further expansion of parental choice, at least if advocates seize the opportunity? Prior entries can be found hereherehereherehereherehere, and here.

ESSA provides states with the opportunity to incentivize school districts to expand parent choice. States now have the freedom to relax their NCLB-driven state laws while incentivizing local authorities to go about improving choice in their school systems.

ESSA replaced NCLB, but the law of the land leading up to reauthorization was shaped by the Obama administration’s waiver program. The Department of Education used those waivers to compel states to pass a number of rather prescriptive laws, which tied the hands of districts in some policy areas. Perhaps the most onerous requirement was performance-based teacher evaluations, which—while well intentioned—were also highly constraining.

ESSA cleared the regulatory deck established by the waiver program, but by and large, the state laws that passed because of those waivers are still on the books. To unbind districts from those laws, states can now do one of three...

Last month, Attorney General Mike DeWine toured Citizens Academy, one of the eleven charter schools in the Breakthrough Schools network. Breakthrough, whose schools rank among the top in the state, serves 3,300 Cleveland students in grades K–8. Founded in 1999, Citizens Academy is among Ohio’s oldest charter schools and places special focus on both academic excellence and responsible citizenship. We at Fordham spotlighted Citizens as one of Ohio’s high-performing, high-poverty schools in our 2010 report Needles in a Haystack. The charter school has also been named a National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education and has received honors from the Ohio Department of Education. Today, the school educates approximately 440 pupils, almost all of whom come from low-income families. 

Attorney General Mike DeWine poses for a photo with Citizens Academy students

Attorney General DeWine’s visit to Citizens Academy is especially fitting, as he has championed initiatives to rebuild Ohio’s urban neighborhoods by promoting economic development and neighborhood and school safety. High-performing charter schools like Citizens and its Breakthrough counterparts play a vital role in creating safe, sustainable neighborhoods...