Charters & Choice

When charter schools first emerged twenty years ago, they represented a revolution, ushering in a new era that put educational choice, innovation, and autonomy front and center in the effort to improve our schools. While charters have always been very diverse in characteristics and outcomes, it wasn’t long before a particular kind of gap-closing, “No Excuses” charter grabbed the lion’s share of public attention. But in this rush to crown and invest in a few “winners,” have we turned our back on the push for innovation that was meant to be at the core of the charter experiment?

It’s become increasingly obvious that charters have hit a wall in their quest to put their students on the path to college.

Of course, the top charter management organizations got this level of attention the old fashioned way: they earned it. The best CMOs—like KIPP, Uncommon Schools, and Achievement First—have done amazing work. The teachers work long hours and do—often quite literally—whatever it takes to give students the kinds of opportunities they’ve had.

But, while charters have made important strides, it’s become increasingly obvious that they’ve also hit a wall in their quest to put their students on the path to college....

The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation’s application process for new charter schools for next school year just wrapped up, and we are pleased to announce that two new schools – a KIPP elementary school and a KIPP middle school – have been approved by the board of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation for sponsorship.

These two schools underwent a comprehensive application process (outlined in figure 1, below), which, in partnership with our colleagues from the Ohio Authorizer Collaborative (OAC), began in January 2012.

Nine applicants began our 2013 application cycle (which opened in January 2012), and school designs varied widely. Of the nine, three promising applications were approved to move forward during the initial review phase. After review by a team of external consultants with relevant experience in school finance, academics and governance, two were moved on to the final phase of the application process and subsequently approved by the Fordham Foundation to open. Approvals were granted based on the strength and alignment of key components of the application, including the proposed education, finance, governance and operations plans, and, the interview.

Figure 1: Thomas B. Fordham Foundation New Charter School Application Process

Both new KIPP...

We are now in the twentieth year of charter schools and during that time a lot has been learned about those that work and those that fail. Roland G. Fryer of The Hamilton Project discusses some of the lessons learned in his new report Learning from the Successes and Failures of Charter Schools.

Fryer analyzed videos, surveys, and lottery data from 35 charter schools in New York City to distinguish practices that generate student achievement. He found that the traditional components districts link to success—class size, per pupil expenditure, percent of teachers with advanced degrees—were not related to high reading and math scores.

So what are successful charters doing differently compared to lower performers? Consistently high-achieving charter schools had five practices in common: 1) increased professional development; 2) data-driven instruction; 3) high-dosage, personalized instruction that targets curricula to the level of each student; 4) increased time on task; and 5) a strong emphasis on high academic expectations.

These methods are working for charters, and may also find success in traditional schools. Preliminary outcomes from pilot programs that implemented these strategies in Denver and Houston public district schools show a sharp increase in student achievement. Fryer acknowledges that all five...

Let’s set aside the poor box office results for Won’t Back Down (which set a record for the worst film opening ever). There are still as many as twenty states considering legislation that would enact the parent trigger that inspired the film. Hollywood may not have the mojo to move these measures along more quickly, but there are many lawmakers who remain convinced that parents should be empowered to fire a school’s management if it’s failing their children or hire a charter provider who may do the job better.

Parent-trigger laws ought to give parents as many tools and options as are available.

For a law like this to succeed—and it remains far from clear whether it can—it ought to give parents as many tools and options as are available. That’s why it was troubling to see the trigger’s most evangelical supporter, Ben Austin, take an ideologically rigid stance against the role that for-profit educators might play in these turnaround efforts.

Austin heads up the Parent Revolution in California, which was the first state to pass a trigger law (it did so in January 2010) but he’s been busy lobbying for the trigger outside the Golden State...

Next month, Georgia voters will head to the polls to decide whether their state can establish an independent commission to authorize and oversee some of its charter schools. Such a panel once existed in the Peach State and authorized sixteen schools before the state Supreme Court voted 4-3 last year to dissolve it on grounds that it was “palpably unconstitutional.” The original commission had authorized charters over the objections of local school boards, which brought the suit against the state and which remain the most fervent opponents of the current referendum. (Districts, of course, would compete with the schools operating under the commission’s direction.)

Unfortunately, the press and interest groups are largely on the school boards’ side, bemoaning the potential loss of “local control” and the prospect that the state would authorize schools unanswerable to local communities. According to a pre-election poll, however, at least half of Georgia’s voters appear to feel differently. Not surprising, considering that twenty years of charter schooling have highlighted the dysfunction of Georgia-style “local control” and the extent to which school boards and superintendents will go to preserve their near-monopolies. Ten other states have independent panels of this sort to authorize...

Charter schools—“exceedingly rare laboratories” for educational innovation—have much to teach the traditional district sector, explains Harvard economist cum MacArthur “genius” awardee Roland Fryer in this paper for the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project. Drawing upon his recent evaluation of charter schools in New York City, Fryer offers five educational practices that explain nearly half of the achievement difference between high- and low-performing charters: 1) a focus on human capital (weekly teacher-development sessions, for example); 2) the use of data to drive (and personalize) instruction; 3) the provision of high-dosage tutoring (targeted based on data-driven analyses); 4) the extension of time on task (by lengthening the school day and year); and 5) the establishment of a high-expectations culture. Profiling Houston and Denver, Fryer then explains how this package of reforms may be brought to scale—and what the marginal cost for implementing each would be. Overall, Fryer estimates a $6 billion price tag to avail the 3 million students in the nation’s 5,000 lowest-performing district schools of this reform package. Though this sticker price may be negotiable. For example, Fryer’s budget doesn’t address how technology could be exploited to...

Advocates for choice and competition in American education have for years encountered the straw-man argument that charters, vouchers, and the like are ineffective because standardized-test performance in these sectors is mostly indistinguishable from that in public schools (the reality is, of course, more nuanced, but more on that later). But Marc Tucker of the National Center for Education and the Economy has taken a more extreme path: He has made the bogus claim that no evidence supports the theory that school choice has any merit at all.

The claim that choice and competition have produced no evidence of success is, at best, disingenuous.

In Tucker’s world, school choice and market-based incentives do nothing to raise student achievement or lower costs for public education—two of the most common claims of choice advocates. Moreover, he wrote in a post for the Education Week blog Top Performers, school choice has done little to close bad schools; parents tend to choose safe and comforting environments where they find responsive principals, he claims, not schools with records of high standardized test scores.

This not only is patronizing, it’s wrong. It’s true that parents don’t always choose schools in order to maximize their child’s...

A moratorium on charter schools in New Hampshire may end well after all. The state Board of Education, which is the only active charter authorizer in the Granite State, said about a week ago that it would stop creating new charters until the legislature would adequately fund them. The eight schools the board had approved during the last two years had consumed an additional $5 million in state aid, the board’s chairman argued. There was no money left to fund any more.

This is the second time this month that we’ve seen a public board charged with authorizing charters flouting the law.

Fifteen charters had applied to the board at the time. Seeing the urgency, legislative leaders acted to assure the Board of Education that they would free up money necessary to meet the costs of new schools. That could end the moratorium later this fall, but that still leaves a problem unresolved, one that an editorial today in the Nashua Telegraph pointed out: “We always thought it was the responsibility of the state Board of Education to approve or reject new applications for charter schools based on their merits …”

That is exactly what New Hampshire...

Many of today’s parents yearn to live in or near the lively, culturally vibrant heart of the city—in diverse, walkable neighborhoods full of music and theater, accessible to museums and stores, awash in ethnic eateries, and radiating a true sense of community. This is a major shift from recent generations that saw middle class families trading urban centers for suburbs with lawns, malls, parks, and good schools.

But good schools still matter. And standing in the way of many parents’ urban aspirations is the question: Will the public schools in the city provide a strong education for my kids?

To be sure, lots of parents favor sending their sons and daughters to diverse schools with children from a variety of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. But can such schools successfully meet the educational needs of all those different kids? How do middle class children fare in these environments? Is there enough challenge and stimulation in schools that also struggle to help poor and immigrant children reach basic standards? Is there too much focus on test scores? And why is it so hard to find diverse public schools with a progressive, child-centered approach to education?

These quandaries...

In January 2010, California became the first state to offer parents another path when it passed the Parent Empowerment Act, aka “parent trigger” law. This measure allows parents to force turnaround efforts at a school, similar to those framed by the federal School Improvement Grant program, including reconstitution as a charter and replacement of half the staff. Since then, six other states have adopted “trigger” legislation (including Ohio, which passed a pilot program for Columbus City Schools in 2011). Another twenty-plus have considered (or are currently considering) similar legislation. This form of parent empowerment has merit, even if it hasn’t actually happened yet in real places. Indeed, no real school has successfully implemented a parent trigger—for school systems, teacher groups, and other establishment forces have myriad means available to block it.

For a preview of how it might really happen, we turn to Hollywood: This film—produced (and presumably subsidized) by Philip Anschutz’s Walden Media and starring Viola Davis (The Help, Doubt) and Maggie Gyllenhaal (Crazy Heart)—chronicles the efforts of two moms (one of them also a teacher) as they struggle to reconstitute...