School Finance

The cause of school choice took a major step forward in Florida last week when Governor Rick Scott signed a bill codifying open enrollment and increasing funding for charter schools. The new law directs $75 million toward capital projects for the state’s 650 charter schools, weighted especially toward those that serve disabled students or those from low-income families. (In addition to the funding carrot, legislators introduced an accountability stick: Charters will now submit compulsory financial statements on a monthly or quarterly basis, and those that receive F ratings for two consecutive years will be automatically shuttered.) But the headline result is undoubtedly the introduction of open enrollment, which will allow students—with particular preference given to highly mobile kids in military families and foster care—to attend any public school in the state with slots open.

Scant weeks after their narrow victory in the Supreme Court’s Friedrichs case, teachers’ unions have won another critical battle—this time at the state level—with a friendly ruling in Vergara v. California. A three-judge appeals court panel overturned the original ruling from Judge Rolf Treu, which invalidated state laws around teacher tenure and due process rights. The case, which hinges on guarantees of equitable education...

Over the weekend, I attended a performance of the Tony-winning show All the Way, whose title political junkies (or readers of a certain age) will know refers to Lyndon Johnson and his 1964 presidential campaign. The play was entertaining and enlightening, depicting President Johnson as a funnier, more likable Frank Underwood—with the salty language and some of the paranoid tendencies of Richard Nixon.

What I found most fascinating, though, was its treatment of detractors of the 1964 Civil Rights Act—most notably Johnson’s mentor turned political opponent, arch-segregationist Senator Richard Brevard Russell of Georgia. The wise and amiable “Uncle Dick” knew that he and his fellow southern Democrats couldn’t attack civil rights head on. In one scene, he tells a handful of his compatriots that, instead of playing to type as rednecks and defenders of brutal racism, they have to make their argument on Constitutional grounds. The refrain of his speeches became, “This bill is an assault on the states and on our Constitution.”

That came to mind on Monday when I had the chance to ask former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan about the mounting controversy over implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—a sixth- or seventh-generation descendant of L.B.J.’s...

Social Impact Bonds (SIB), also known as “pay for success” loans, are a novel form of financing social service interventions, including education initiatives. First piloted six years ago in the United Kingdom and now making their way to the United States, SIBs aim to leverage private funding to start new programs or scale proven ones. Broadly speaking, the instrument works like this: Private lenders and philanthropists deliver dollars—the bond—to a nonprofit provider that, in turn, implements the intervention. A government agency pays back the bond principal with interest, but only if the program achieves pre-specified results.

In its ideal form, an SIB has the potential to be a triple win: Governments receive risk-free funding to test or expand social programs that could help them save money; investors reap a financial return if the program works; and providers gain access to new sources of funding. To ensure that the deal will benefit all parties, due diligence occurs on the front end, including selecting a program provider, estimating government savings, and developing an evaluation method. 

To date, the discussion on SIBs has been largely conceptual, engaging both supporters and skeptics alike. But a fascinating new report written by MDRC President Gordon Berlin provides a first-hand...

This report from Public Impact describes an unusual $55 million school turnaround effort in North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools called Project L.I.F.T. (Leadership and Investment for Transformation). Despite its sizable price tag, the project offers lessons for funders, district leaders, and anyone else taking on the tough work of overhauling low-performing schools—as spelled out in this examination of outcomes at the project’s two-year midway point.

Launched in 2012–13, L.I.F.T. is an effort led and largely funded by a group of donors working in partnership with the district to raise the graduation rate at West Charlotte High School and improve performance at select feeder schools. The project’s initial investment group, led by local foundations, pledged an astonishing $40.5 million to the effort during its planning phase; corporate sponsors, individual donors, and federal School Improvement Grants and Title I dollars have funded the rest. Project reforms center on four areas: time, talent, technology, and parent and community engagement. This has included implementing extended learning in select schools and opening a credit recovery high school, as well as issuing hiring bonuses, revamping the district’s hiring calendar, and realizing “Opportunity Culture”—an initiative through which teachers teach more students for more pay. Laptops have been...

After roughly a year of presidential politicking during which education has been given short shrift, two primary debates over the past few days have restored the issue to news cycle relevance. Both were held in troubled Michigan cities in advance of today’s crucial primary. It’s not clear what about the state suddenly brought public focus back to K–12 schooling, but there’s undeniably something in the water.

During last Thursday night’s Republican conclave in Detroit, Fox moderator Megyn Kelly asked John Kasich the first substantive question on education posed to any GOP candidate in over half a year. (Jeb Bush was queried on Common Core at the very first debate, held in August.) The Motor City’s schools are burdened with billions in debt, Kelly said, and kids are often forced to study in filthy, unsafe classrooms. Should the next president intervene with a windfall of federal cash, as the present one did with the auto industry?

It’s to Kasich’s credit that he gave a reasonably germane and detailed answer, especially given the rhetorical bloodbath being waged to his right. The governor drew a comparison between Detroit’s public schools and those in Cleveland, a similarly blighted district that has made some strides during his time...

Editor's note: This post was first published on Flypaper on July 21, 2015.

John Kasich announced today that he’s running for president. The current governor of Ohio is the sixteenth Republican to join the crowded GOP primary, dwarfing the five-person field on the other side of the aisle. He’s also the twenty-first subject of our Eduwatch 2016 series chronicling presidential candidates’ stances on education issues.

Kasich entered politics in the late 1970s, when he was elected to the Ohio Senate. He moved on to the House of Representatives in 1983, representing the state’s Twelfth Congressional District until 2001. After taking a break from public life, he returned to take Ohio’s helm in 2011. During his time as the state’s sixty-ninth governor, Kasich has made education a priority, and his efforts have produced some positive results. Here’s a sampling of his views:

1. Common Core: “[The idea behind the standards was for] students in every state to be given the opportunity to compete with every other student….I want kids to jump higher….I’m going to make sure, at least in my state, that standards are high and local control is maintained….Now, some may call that Common Core. I...

Detroit Public Schools recently made national headlines for the heartbreaking conditions of its school facilities and a widespread teacher “sick-out.” For Detroit, these are sadly just the latest hurdles to overcome: The public school system has been in dire financial straits for many years, while national testing data indicate that the district’s students are among the lowest-achieving in the nation.

A report from the Lincoln Institute, a nonprofit that focuses on land use and tax policy, provides a fascinating angle on the Detroit situation. It highlights the massive problems that the Motor City encounters when trying to finance public services, including education, through its local property tax system. Consider just a few bleak statistics reported in this paper: 1) The property tax delinquency rate was a staggering 54 percent in 2014; 2) roughly eighty thousand housing units are vacant—23 percent of Detroit’s housing stock; 3) and 36 percent and 22 percent of commercial and industrial property, respectively, sat vacant.

The report also highlights ways that property tax policies exacerbate the school system’s revenue woes. First, property tax abatements—tax breaks aimed at spurring re-investment—have reduced or exempted the tax liabilities of more than ten thousand properties. Whether the benefit of these reductions outweighs...

Detroit Public Schools recently made national headlines for the heartbreaking conditions of its school facilities and a widespread teacher “sick-out.” For Detroit, these are sadly just the latest hurdles to overcome: The public school system has been in dire financial straits for many years, while national testing data indicates that the district’s students are among the lowest-achieving in the nation.

A report from the Lincoln Institute, a nonprofit that focuses on land use and tax policy, provides a fascinating angle on the Detroit situation. It highlights the massive problems that the Motor City encounters when trying to finance public services, including education, through its local property tax system. Consider just a few bleak statistics reported in this paper: 1) The property tax delinquency rate was a staggering 54 percent in 2014; 2) roughly eighty thousand housing units are vacant—23 percent of Detroit’s housing stock; 3) and 36 percent and 22 percent of commercial and industrial property, respectively, sat vacant.

The report also highlights ways that property tax policies exacerbate the school system’s revenue woes. First, property tax abatements—tax breaks aimed at spurring re-investment—have reduced or exempted the tax liabilities of more than ten thousand properties. Whether the benefit...

  • Career and technical education is one of the best weapons in the reformer’s arsenal. It’s a proven gateway to post-secondary credentials and skilled jobs, which can’t be taken for granted when so many of our high school graduates find themselves unprepared for college and career. The Gadfly was apoplectic when Arizona Governor Doug Ducey green-lit $30 million in cuts to the state’s CTE programs last year, reducing their funding by nearly 50 percent. These classes obviously benefit the ninety thousand students they serve annually, but they’re also a boon to the local and regional economies, which profit immensely from a domestic source of coveted technicians and tradesmen. It’s great news for all, therefore, that veto-proof majorities in both houses of Arizona’s state legislature are ready to pass legislation repealing the cuts. If ever there was a case of government electing to be pennywise and pound-foolish, it was this.
  • Republicans and teachers’ unions have always been like peas in a pod. We’re not sure where the love affair started, but it was probably when they spent all those decades impugning and seeking to destroy one another. Okay, kidding aside, we’re all aware of the historic tensions existing between unionized teachers and the
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Nothing in life is truly free—but don’t tell that to dogmatic liberals and their pandering politicians, who would turn the first two years of college into a new universal entitlement. This idea has the same fatal flaws as universal preschool: a needless windfall for affluent voters and state institutions that does very little to help the needy.

Start with the expense. Today, millions of families save their own pennies and dollars to pay for kids’ college. While they would surely love to slough this burden onto taxpayers, doing so would probably shift billions of dollars every year from programs that help talented poor kids access higher education and improve our schools. In a time of scarce resources, why is this a priority?

Nor would it help disadvantaged students. Most “free college” proposals focus on community colleges, turning them into “grades thirteen and fourteen” of a new public education system. Yet these schools have the worst track record with poor kids, especially those with exceptional academic promise. (They’re also already “free” to poor students today, thanks to federal Pell grants.) We know from a ton of research that these students do best at more challenging state schools and private colleges.

Yes, it...

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