Quality Choices

Nationally and in Ohio, we strive to develop policies and practices leading to a lively, accessible marketplace of high-quality education options for every young American (including charter schools, magnet schools, voucher programs, and online courses), as well as families empowered and informed so that they can successfully engage with that marketplace.

Resources:

Our many choice-related blog posts are listed below.


Fordham’s choice experts:


A new report by the National Charter School Resource Center examines the unique position of rural charter schools across America.

Citing a lack of research on the subject, as well as the demand for more examples of successful practice, the authors identify some of the unique difficulties that rural charter schools face: attracting and holding onto diverse local talent, paying to transport students over large distances, and maintaining and securing school facilities.

These challenges are often more acute for rural charter schools than their urban counterparts. There are hidden costs to teachers living and working in rural areas, such as a lack of suitable housing, professional growth opportunities, and good transportation. Providing transportation to students in areas with few alternative options may be prohibitively expensive. Simply locating appropriate buildings in which to operate a charter school is usually easier in an urban environment, where disused structures are more frequently available. When rural charters need to construct their own, costs rise exponentially.

Using examples in five states, the authors showcase a handful of rural charters that have overcome this adversity by using their position to their advantage.

  • Having struggled to retain good staff, the remote Upper Carmen Charter School in Idaho
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A new set of four studies conducted by Pat Wolf and colleagues evaluate various aspects of the Louisiana Scholarship Program. The program, it’s important to note, prohibits participating schools from using their normal selective admissions process for their voucher kids and also mandates that they administer the state test, among other requirements.

The first study examines how the scholarships affect student achievement. It focuses on the 2012–13 applicant cohort, including those who took state tests in grades 3–6 in school year 2011–12. This provides student baseline scores for kids before entering the program. Students who applied to oversubscribed schools were randomly chosen to receive scholarships. The study found that the voucher program had a negative impact on participating students’ achievement in the first two years of operations, most clearly in math. Specifically, a voucher user who was performing at the fiftieth percentile at baseline fell twenty-four percentile points below their control group peers in math after one year. By year two, however, they were thirteen percentile points below, so at least they were on the upswing. (The results for reading impact can’t be presented with confidence.)

The second study measured the impact of the voucher programs on non-cognitive skills like...

If you’re at all interested in Washington, D.C. schools, you should read this excellent report by David Osborne. It serves as a quick and comprehensive history lesson on the city’s last two decades of reform. It also offers valuable analysis of the current state of play and makes a compelling argument about why things landed where they did.

But I think the report’s most valuable contribution is the implicit question it raises about the future. That question—related to the evolution of urban K–12 systems with district and non-district charter sectors—is being faced by cities from coast to coast. How the District (and other places) answers it will shape the next decade of urban school reform. In fact, because of D.C.’s work over the last twenty years and its strong leadership today, it could become the nation’s most important city for systemic reform.

Much of the report proceeds chronologically. If you know nothing about the recent history of D.C. schools, this is a great primer. But even if you’re familiar with the city, you’ll gain a new appreciation for how events and initiatives built on one another. There are many interrelated storylines: turnover in city government, shifting demographics, the creation of...

Editor's note: This letter appeared in the 2015 Thomas B. Fordham Institute Annual Report. To learn more, download the report.

Dear Fordham Friends,

Think tanks and advocacy groups engage in many activities whose impact is notoriously difficult to gauge: things like “thought leadership,” “fighting the war of ideas,” and “coalition building.” We can look at—and tabulate—various short-term indicators of success, but more often than not, we’re left hoping that these equate to positive outcomes in the real world. That’s why I’m excited this year to be able to point to two hugely important, concrete legislative accomplishments and declare confidently, “We had something to do with that.”

Reading

Namely: Ohio’s House Bill 2, which brought historic reforms to the Buckeye State’s beleaguered charter school system, and the Every Student Succeeds Act, the long-overdue update to No Child Left Behind

In neither case can we claim anything close to full credit. On the Washington front especially, our contributions came mostly pre-2015, in the form of writing, speaking, and networking about the flaws of NCLB and outlining a smaller, smarter federal role. We were far from alone; figures...

Today, the ratings bubble burst for Ohio’s schools and districts. With rising standards associated with the state’s New Learning Standards and next-generation assessments now fully in place, as expected, student proficiency rates fell throughout Ohio. Correspondingly, school ratings declined as well. This much-needed reset of academic expectations will better ensure that parents and the public have an honest gauge of how students and schools are performing.

Still, state policymakers have work ahead to guarantee that parents and the public gain the clearest possible picture of students’ college and career readiness. Based on 2014-15 test results, roughly 55 and 70 percent of Ohio students were deemed “proficient” depending on the grade and subject. While these proficiency rates are indeed a more accurate gauge of achievement than in previous years—when Ohio regularly labeled more than 80 percent of students as proficient—the number of students meeting rigorous academic benchmarks continues to be overstated.

When utilizing a more demanding standard for achievement, state testing data indicate that between 30 and 45 percent of students statewide are on track for college and career success. These achievement rates—the percentage of students reaching Ohio’s advanced and accelerated levels—better match the Ohio’s proficiency results on NAEP, the best...

In September, Ohio was awarded a federal Charter School Program (CSP) grant, winning the largest slice of the pie among eight winning states ($71 million). Soon after, following on the heels of last summer’s charter school sponsor evaluation scandal at the Ohio Department of Education, there was significant backlash and a hold placed on the funds. Concerns stemmed from the fact that the grant application described Ohio as a “beacon of charter oversight” (before the state passed landmark legislation in October promising to make that a reality) and overstated the performance of its charter sector.

As part of the effort to salvage the grant, the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) submitted revised data on charter school performance. Applying a more rigorous definition of failure[1] yielded fifty-seven low-performing schools, in contrast to the six listed in Ohio’s initial application last July.[2] Given these discrepancies, it’s appropriate that the feds are conducting their due diligence in asking ODE to update its application and demonstrate that it can manage the funds effectively. Meanwhile, those of us observing the ongoing debate from the sidelines should hope...

A new study from the University of Arkansas examines the relationship between Milwaukee’s citywide school voucher program and students’ criminal behavior.

Controlling for factors such as family income, parental education, and the presence of two parents in the home, the authors used data from Wisconsin court records to compare the criminal behavior of voucher students with non-voucher students. The groups, comprising some two thousand students, were enrolled in eighth or ninth grade in 2006 as part of Milwaukee’s Parental Choice Program (MPCP) and the Milwaukee Public School (MPS) system.

The study first analyzed only pupils who were enrolled in MPCP and MPS in 2006, regardless of how long they stayed in the program, and found no statistically significant results. Next, the researchers measured the effects of a “full dose” of voucher program treatment (i.e., students who were enrolled in 2006 and stayed through the twelfth grade). These students were found to be 5–7 percent less likely to commit a misdemeanor, 2–3 percent less likely to commit a felony, and 5–12 percent less likely to be accused of any crime as young adults. (Participants were between twenty-two and twenty-five years old at the time the data were analyzed.) In other words,...

For the past few years, Russ Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution has ranked the nation’s hundred largest school districts based on the amount of school choice they give to families and the degree to which they promote competition between schools. In many ways, these rankings are similar to Fordham’s own choice-friendly cities list, though the unit of analysis and metric differ somewhat. As in prior years, five of Brookings’s thirteen indicators concern the availability, accessibility, comparability, clarity, and relevance of information about school performance—a far heavier emphasis than one finds in Fordham’s metric. The other eight indicators deal with topics such as school closure, transportation, and the existence of a common application for district schools, several of which are common to both reports.

Though not one of the nation’s largest districts, the Recovery School District in New Orleans is again included in the Brookings rankings because of its unique status within the school choice movement. Once again, it ranks first overall. Yet in the report accompanying this year’s rankings, Whitehurst argues that because of its unique circumstances, New Orleans isn’t a realistic model for other districts. He points instead to Denver, now listed second overall and first among large school...

Fordham Ohio’s latest report – Quality in Adversity: Lessons from Ohio’s best charter schools – was released on January 27. You can read the report foreword elsewhere in this issue, and now you can check out the event video by clicking here.

Our principal investigators presented the findings of their survey of the leaders of the top charter schools in the state and moderated a panel of those leaders on topics such as sector quality, accountability, and replication and growth.

The report’s findings and the event garnered attention in media outlets both in the Buckeye State and nationwide. Here’s a snapshot of the coverage:

  • The Columbus Dispatch and the Cincinnati Enquirer discussed the findings on the day of release, comparing them to the papers’ previous reportage on charter school issues.
  • Statewide public radio covered the report and the release event, interviewing the researchers, the panelists, and even an audience member. A staffer from Democrats for Ed Reform was also on hand for the event and wove a very personal story into her observations.
  • National notices were brief but important. Ohio’s top charter schools deserve to be heard above all of the
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On November 1, 2015, Governor John Kasich signed landmark legislation to reform charter schools—House Bill 2, which strengthens the governance of Ohio’s charter sector and holds its key actors more accountable for their performance. These reforms lay the foundation for higher-quality charter schools and better outcomes for children. In time, we expect that the tougher accountability measures in Ohio’s revamped charter law will purge this sector of its lowest-performing schools, those that demonstrate no improvement (or worse) over the schools to which they serve as alternatives. However, simply eliminating ineffective schools is not nearly enough to create the opportunities Ohio children need; simultaneously, state policymakers should nurture the growth and replication of excellent schools.

Ohio already has some exemplary charters—a beachhead and benchmark for future sector quality—but the need for more high-quality schools in urban communities remains acute. In Columbus alone, more than 16,000 children attended truly dismal district or charter schools in 2013–14 (defined as a school that received a D or F for student growth and achievement). Equally staggering numbers of students attended low-performing schools in Cincinnati and Cleveland: 15,000 and 19,000 students, respectively. Taken together, roughly 75,000 youngsters in Ohio’s eight major cities (or about 30 percent...

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