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.


Our many choice-related blog posts are listed below.

Fordham’s choice experts:

Many education reformers once thought that parental choice was the “ultimate local control.” When opponents of choice programs defended the district monopoly system by rhetorically asking, “Don’t you believe in your locally elected board?” we’d reply, “We want education decisions to be made as close to kids as possible—by families.”

We thought that this was the morally sound answer. But we also thought that it was a political winner. Sure, there’d be opposition from those lobbying on behalf of the districts that stood to lose control. But everyone else would want to empower parents.

Moreover, many of us had read John Chubb and Terry Moe’s seminal Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, which argued that democratic control was the cause of many of public education’s troubles. Local school boards, many reformers believed, were populated by aspiring politicians with pet issues and petty grievances. They were controlled by powerful interest groups who cared about things other than student learning.

We assumed that school results would be much better, and school politics much reduced, if we dramatically decentralized the system by handing authority to families, educators, and civil society. Teachers could start and lead schools, nonprofits could operate and support schools, and parents could match...

Scott Pearson

School districts across the country are asking high-quality charter school operators to restart failing public schools.  In New Orleans, nearly every public school has been relaunched as a charter school. In Tennessee, the new Achievement School District is focusing its attention on a range of school improvement options, including charters, to boost the state’s lowest-performers. The charter school model is popular because, as the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools recently reported, increased flexibility in staffing, curriculum, time management, and resources allows charters to bore down on student achievement.

But what about when charter schools themselves aren’t meeting standards? Until recently, the only way to bring accountability to a failing charter school was to close it. While closure rescues students from persistent failure, it also puts them through a disruption that many families don’t welcome.

Now a new option is emerging: charter school restarts. This involves transferring management of an existing charter school to a new board and leadership team. If they choose to, students can stay in their schools while wholesale changes are instituted around them.

As the National Alliance notes, charter school restarts are occurring mainly in cities with large numbers of public charter schools....

On the heels of national research studies that have uncovered troubling findings on the performance of virtual charter schools, a new report provides solid, commonsense policy suggestions aimed at improving online schools and holding them more accountable for results. Three national charter advocacy organizations—NAPCS, NACSA, and 50CAN—united to produce these joint recommendations.  

The paper’s recommendations focus on three key issues: authorizing, student enrollment, and funding. When it comes to authorizers, the authors suggest restricting oversight duties for statewide e-schools to state or regional entities, capping authorizing fees, and creating “virtual-specific goals” to which schools are held accountable. Such goals, which would be part of the authorizer-school contract, could include matters of enrollment, attendance, achievement, truancy, and finances. On enrollment, the authors cite evidence that online education may not be a good fit for every child, leading them to suggest that states study whether to create admissions standards for online schools (in contrast to open enrollment). They also recommend limits to enrollment growth based on performance; a high-performing school would have few, if any, caps on growth, while a low-performer would face strict limits. Finally, the report touches on funding policies, including recommendations to fund online schools based...

This is the fifth 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 others hereherehere, and here.

Last time around, we argued that America’s charter marketplace has done a mediocre job of matching supply with demand and ensuring solid school quality. We fingered three (of many) sources of these partial market failures: too few (and, in some locales, too many) charter schools; weak consumer information; and distracted suppliers.

Due to these shortcomings, we concluded that today’s marketplace isn’t up to the challenge of ensuring strong academic achievement and other important education outcomes. The policies that constrain charter markets are part of the problem—but not the whole story.

Even after twenty-five years, charters in most places remain an alien implant in the body of American public education, and all sorts of immune reactions persist. Still, we can treat some of these symptoms while also repairing glitches in the original policy design.

Our book suggests a number of fixes...

It isn't perfect, but Jeanne Allen's new education reform "manifesto" makes a number of valuable points and powerful suggestions for the future. Notably, she argues for a fresh emphasis on innovation, an earnest embrace of upward mobility, and a heartfelt commitment to universal opportunity, flexibility, and transparency. She is right that we ought not confuse means with ends, allow charter schools for poor kids (valuable as they are) to be the only thing reformers obsess over, or spend so much energy bickering amongst ourselves. It’s sage and timely counsel from a veteran reform warrior.

But I'm not as glum as Jeanne about the accomplishments of recent years. Low-hanging fruit always gets picked first, and implementation is just plain harder than policy change. It inevitably brings mid-course corrections, delays, and some backsliding. (So do election returns.) Meanwhile, charters and choice continue to burgeon—a good thing—but it's clear today that ensuring high-quality school options is harder than simply providing options. Standards are more rigorous. Achievement among poor and minority kids has risen a bit. Teacher evaluations are more serious. Tests are better.

Yes, we have miles to go—many, many miles—and bravo for Jeanne’s pushing us forward. Sometimes, though, we also have to clean up behind ourselves. For...

Today, a consortium of charter school supporters released a new report containing solid, commonsense policy recommendations aimed at improving virtual schools. This report comes on the heels of national research studies that have documented the dismal performance of virtual schools across the country. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), the 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now (50CAN), and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) intend their “A Call to Action to Improve the Quality of Full-Time Virtual Charter Public Schools” report as a wake-up call.

“When national groups that advocate for and champion charter schools question the impact of virtual charter schools on student achievement, policy makers should take note,” said Chad L. Aldis, Vice President for Ohio Policy and Advocacy for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. “If Ohio leaders are serious about improving student outcomes for virtual school students, they’d be wise to consider these recommendations.”

NAPCS, 50CAN, and NACSA summarize the failings in the current online education landscape nationally and propose specific policy recommendations to help states better hold full-time virtual charter schools accountable for student results. The recommendations touch on a wide variety of key areas including authorizer (or “sponsor”) incentives; student enrollment...

Public Impact and EdPlex have released a new websiteprocess guide, and set of resources for charter school authorizers to support school restarts. Restarts occur when an underperforming school is closed and a new school with new management opens to serve the same students. The restart strategy differs from other major interventions, such as transformation (replace school leader, implement research-based strategies), turnaround (replace school leader and at least 50 percent of staff, implement new instructional model), and school closure. According to the authors of the guide, restarts are the more effective strategy: closures negatively affect student attendance and achievement, while preliminary research shows better student outcomes in restarts than transformations or turnarounds. A key issue with turnarounds is finding great school leaders and teachers. Done well, restarts can mean rapid improvement for low-performing schools (we acknowledge, however, that some believe that a core part of the charter model is simply closing failing schools, period). 

 The resources and process guide in particular are meant to increase the likelihood of restart success and sustainability by providing authorizers with a practical “how-to” for getting the job done. The guide consists of nine steps, from the planning stage through post-opening, that include community engagement, recruiting,...

  • We here at Fordham are really jazzed about the potential of high-quality career and technical education (CTE). Like, really couldn’t be more jazzed—we’ve written blog posts about it, held sumptuously catered events celebrating it, and even published a groundbreaking study about how CTE makes students more likely to enroll in college and earn a decent wage. But there’s nothing in life like the power of an object lesson, so here’s one for you: In Kentucky, where officials have added incentives for schools to prioritize career readiness to the state accountability procedures, we’re starting to see a blossoming CTE sector that benefits students and businesses alike. As one rural teacher puts it, referring to a local manufacturing boomlet, “These are good jobs, and any student who wants a job can get one.” When’s the last time you heard that?
  • A recent report on gifted and talented education in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., has stirred up some strife that was eminently avoidable. Officials in Montgomery County, Maryland have proposed measures to diversify the local gifted programs, in which white and Asian students are (as is often the case) disproportionately enrolled. That’s left the parents of those students
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This is the fourth 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 herehere, here, and here.

Our first essay paid homage to chartering’s origins, a prominent strand of which was the mounting awareness that K–12 education’s “one best system” was not meeting the educational needs of every child. One response, via the policy mechanism that became known as “chartering,” was to create a lightly regulated marketplace of diverse and generally autonomous schools that would strive to ensure high-quality education for all children—especially boys and girls in poverty—and empower families to determine what school best suits their singular needs. That was the theory, and a noble one it was. If only it had worked as well as its architects hoped.

In general, the charter marketplace—where it’s had the freedom and capacity to grow in response to demand—has done pretty well at responding to families’ non-educational priorities, such as safety, convenience, and a welcoming atmosphere....

Susan Aud Pendergrass

A high school diploma is a critical marker in the transition to adulthood that affects labor participation, social mobility, and opportunities for success. The good news is that high school graduation rates reached an all-time high of 82 percent in spring 2014. The overall graduation rate for charter public schools, however, fell short of that number by ten points. We know that charter schools have unique characteristics that occasionally don’t hold up well under cursory examination, and when we take a closer look, we find that there is actually a lot of good news about charter school high school graduation rates.

In 2010, America’s Promise launched the GradNation campaign in an effort to raise the percentage of high school students who graduate with a regular high school diploma in four years to more than 90 percent. As part of their campaign, the group publishes an annual report, Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic, focusing both on schools that have reached that 90 percent threshold and those that graduate 67 percent or fewer of their students on time (once referred to as “dropout factories”). We analyzed the same data to examine these two thresholds for...