Choice Words

Stuart Buck

Guest blogger Stuart Buck is the author of Acting White: The Ironic Effect of Desegregation,
published by Yale University Press in May 2010.  He is currently a
Distinguished Doctoral Fellow in the Education Reform department at the
University of Arkansas.

The Arizona Empowerment Scholarship
program should serve as a model for other states. Like other states’
voucher programs, it gives parents of special education students in
public schools the chance to send their children to private school. But
it does so in a novel manner: it gives parents access to a special bank
account in which the state deposits 90% of the money that the state
would have spent on that student’s education. Parents can then spend
that account on private schools, tutoring, and services that best help
their child. Indeed, parents even have the option of saving the
left-over money for college education, if they’re able to find a more
efficient K-12 school.

This innovative program both saves the state money and gives families
the chance of finding a better fit for a special education child who
may not always be well-served by the public school in the parents’
neighborhood. Who could object?

Entrenched special interest groups. Unfortunately, like the voucher program
that preceded it, the new Empowerment Scholarship program is under
legal attack. The Arizona School Boards Association, the Arizona
Education Association and the Arizona...

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Fordham has been involved in the arena of school choice in Ohio at
virtually every level for the past decade, except that of a parent. We authorize charter schools,
we have created charter school support organizations and helped birth
other choice-support entities, we’ve fought for choice policies in the
legislature, and Terry and Checker literally wrote the book
on what we think are the lessons from all this work. Issues of school
choice and the quality (or not) of urban schools have been a big part of
my professional life the last five years. Now, they are front and
center in my personal life, too.

I live in the Columbus City School district (CCS). My husband and I bought our home years before we had decided whether
we wanted to have children, let alone where we’d want to raise them and
send them to school. Fast forward about a decade: our son will be a
kindergartner next year and we find ourselves navigating urban school
choice firsthand.

We look forward to continuing to live in the city of Columbus and
sending our son to a district school next year. We love the diversity
and energy of our neighborhood, and we greatly value the close proximity
of our home to downtown and the excellent community programming at
nearby Ohio State University, among the many other reasons we live where
we do. And,...

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The Education Gadfly

Excellent schools require excellent leaders, but as the charter movement expands where will the next generation of charter school leaders come from? Across the country, organizations are recognizing the potential of charter incubators to recruit, train, and support the charter principals and CEOs of the future. The Fordham Institute is teaming up with the CEE-Trust to host a discussion with some of the groups leading the way on December 7 at our Washington, D.C. office. Driving Quality: Can charter incubators solve the problem of too many mediocre charter schools? will combine on-the-ground expertise from the leaders of charter incubation organizations with the findings of a new Public Impact policy brief on the model's potential.? Don't miss out: Reserve your seat now.

-The Education Gadfly

A new generation of affluent, educated, urban Americans is beginning to send its children to school.? Their dissatisfaction with the lack of choice and the status quo of failure in urban education will be far more personal than their elders'?and it represents a golden opportunity for choice advocates able to mobilize these parents.

As upper-middle class white families move into historically-minority, urban neighborhoods, the infusion of affluence causes property values to spike, businesses to spring up, and municipal tax revenues to increase, fundamentally changing those communities.? Gentrification has become a national phenomenon, transforming neighborhoods from the Northern Liberties (Philadelphia) to Columbia City (Seattle), and countless others in between, and it is raising some tough questions for many young parents educated in high-performing suburban schools.

Inner-city public schools are overwhelmingly low-performing and attended by minorities.? Gentrifiers are confronted with a question that contributed to their parents' and grandparents' suburban exodus a half-century earlier: Are they willing to send their children to the neighborhood public school?

Historically, no.? The established alternatives, however, are straining to keep up with demand.? Manhattan, for example, has experienced a thirty-two percent increase in its population under the age of five over the past half-decade, but spots at elite private schools crept up by only 400.? At the elementary level, supply is actually dropping; since the 1990s, over 1,300 Catholic schools, most of them urban, shut their doors.? It looks like a seller's market for top education providers, which tends to...

Guest Blogger

Which of the five states competing to be America's next Education Reform Idol did the most to advance charter schools and private-school choice during the 2011 legislative session? Consider our analysis below, and attend our event Thursday morning (8:30-10:00AM) to see key players in all five states defend their records in front of a panel of ed-reform celebrity judges?Jeanne Allen, Richard Lee Colvin, and Bruno Manno. And click here to cast your vote for Education Reform Idol.

Florida

Florida passed three major choice initiatives this year: A charter-school bill that makes it easier for high-performing charters to expand, a pair of voucher programs for students with disabilities and students in low-performing schools, and a digital-learning bill. The digital-learning bill is especially impressive, allowing students to attend publicly funded digital charters as well as requiring districts to offer part- and full-time digital options in grades K-12.

Illinois

Illinois's Charter School Quality Act allows charter schools to be approved by an independent commission instead of individual school districts. This is expected to be a boon for many rural and suburban would-be charter startups, which have faced fierce opposition from school boards in these areas, and is expected to aid those starting urban charters as well. However, the statewide charter-school cap in Illinois remains a paltry 120.

Indiana

Indiana passed a charter-school bill that has been...

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As if the teachers unions need another reason to hate charter schools, here's one: The finding, from a new Fordham Institute report, that when given a chance to opt out of state pension systems, many charter schools take it. Furthermore, a fair number of these charters replace traditional pensions with nothing at all.

Why is this such a big deal? It's not just that unions will worry that charter schools are mistreating their teachers. More fundamentally, if charter schools continue to multiply, and they are allowed to opt out of state retirement systems, those systems will collapse under their own weight--an outcome the unions will fight to the death.

First some background. The new Fordham study, by Michael Podgursky and Amanda Olberg, examines six large states where charters are allowed to opt out of the traditional pension system. In a few of these states, including California and Louisiana, most charters stay in the system. (That's largely because teachers in those states don't participate in Social Security; see the report for an explanation about that.) But in other states, including Arizona and Florida, most charters bolt. Typically they offer a 401(k) or 403(b) instead, but almost one-quarter offer either no pension or a plan without an employer match.

On this latter point, Rick Kahlenberg of the Century Fund hit the charter movement hard. In a Flypaper forum (that also...

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Guest Blogger

We asked a few experts to share their thoughts on our newly published paper, "Charting a New Course to Retirement: How Charter Schools Handle Teacher Pensions"?an online forum of sorts. Here is a guest post by Karen Hawley Miles of Education Resource Strategies.

Fordham digs in on pensions

Michael Podgursky of the University of Missouri at Columbia and Amanda Olberg of the Fordham Institute are releasing a paper today that examines how charter schools handle teacher pensions in states that allow charters to opt out. The paper shows various choices charters make with regard to their pensions and identifies several interesting trends. Observations include different levels of participation in state plans based on school location (rural or urban), age of the prospective teacher workforce and freestanding schools vs. part of a charter management organization. Learning more about why these factors make a difference to compensation decisions is very important for all education decision-makers.

This kind of analysis is especially crucial in these tough times. No serious effort to improve education and contain educational costs can occur without a close look at teacher compensation which comprises between 40 and 55 percent of district operating budgets. And charter successes and failures can inform district decision-making, especially around what works and what doesn't work to provide the right incentives to attract the best teachers and to keep them there.

Next step: The full...

Guest Blogger

Today, Fordham released our latest, "Charting a New Course to Retirement: How Charter Schools Handle Teacher Pensions." Authors Amanda Olberg and Michael Podgursky explain the report's findings here.

In the wake of the economic downturn, American public schools face serious, long-term fiscal challenges. Of them, rising pension costs are a particular concern. Yet school districts have no mechanisms for reining in these costs; almost all districts are tethered by statute to state pension systems (or, sometimes, their own local pension systems). It turns out, though, that some states allow their public charter schools to opt out of those systems. How they handle this opportunity bears scrutiny?and may suggest some lessons for the larger public-education system.

Nationally, teacher compensation comprises 55 percent of current expenditures in K-12 education. (That figure rises to 81 percent when all school staff are included.) A large and growing share of these costs goes to help fund retirement benefits. Between 2004 and 2010, for example, district pension costs (not counting retiree health insurance) increased from 12 percent to over 15 percent of salaries. A recent report from the Pew Center on the States estimated that unfunded public employee pension liabilities in the U.S. grew to $1.26 trillion during the 2009 fiscal year; other studies estimate that the true liability is even higher. Even as states attempt to pay down this liability, pension...

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Guest Blogger

We asked a few experts to share their thoughts on our newly published paper, "Charting a New Course to Retirement: How Charter Schools Handle Teacher Pensions"?an online forum of sorts. Here is a guest post by Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute.

U. Missouri's invaluable Mike Podgursky and Fordham's Amanda Olberg have just issued a study of the kind that we'd have been swimming in years ago, if ed reformers were serious about cost structures or charter schools as an opportunity to rethink the industrial school model. In studying the simple and immensely practical question of how charter schools handle teacher retirement when state law allows them to opt out of the state's pension system, Podgursky and Olberg examine just how much rethinking charters are doing when it comes to the familiar, expensive, and binding routines of schooling?and what lessons that holds for schools more broadly.

The inattention to this question is really pretty astounding. As Podgursky and Olberg remind us, pension costs accounted for 15 percent of teacher salaries in 2010, and pensions probably amounted to more than 10 percent of all school-district spending last year. Big savings there could alleviate the need for so many of the difficult decisions with which supes, school boards, and school leaders are wrestling.

The authors examined six charter-heavy states?including giant states like California, Florida, and New York, and charter hotbeds...

Amy Fagan

The Fordham Institute has published a new paper today that readers might find quite interesting. In this new "Ed Short," Amanda Olberg of the Fordham Institute and Michael Podgursky of the University of Missouri at Columbia examine how public charter schools handle pensions for their teachers. Some states give these schools the freedom to opt out of the traditional teacher pension system; when given that option, how many charter schools take it? Olberg and Podgursky examine data from six charter-heavy states and find that charter participation rates in traditional pension systems vary greatly from state to state.? When charter schools choose not to participate in state pension plans, the authors find that they most often provide their teachers with defined-contribution plans (401(k) or 403(b)). But some opt-out charters offer no alternative retirement plans for their teachers. To learn more, check out the full paper, "Charting a New Course to Retirement: How Charter Schools Handle Teacher Pensions."

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