Choice Words

It’s not often a piece of legislation is challenged in court before it becomes law. But since Alabama teacher unions and school boards are so intent on quashing any alternative to the traditional school district, they have marshaled every resource to defeat what should be the state’s first private school choice plan.

When Republicans passed a tuition tax credit late last week, the Alabama Education Association cried foul and took the GOP to court, claiming that legislative leaders violated the state’s Open Meetings Act by privately discussing the measure and tacking it on at the last minute to an entirely different education bill. This afternoon, a state judge gave the union a temporary victory and forbade the governor from signing the bill until next week when a hearing determines what will happen next.

Not to be sidelined, the Alabama Association of Schools Boards and the School Superintendents of Alabama have sent Governor Robert Bentley a joint letter urging him to reject the measure, using faulty assumptions to claim that such a law would reduce education funding by tens of millions of dollars.

The harm done to these parties is real only if one assumes that every education dollar is theirs to begin with. And to the state’s public education establishment, that has been the assumption. Whether lawmakers or school-choice advocates are proposing tax credit scholarships or charter schools, they can expect a fight—not just from the unions and the school boards, but from the Alabama Department of Education,...

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The latest study from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) has profound implications for the artificial cap on charter school growth in Massachusetts. According to the report (released today), the typical charter school student gains about one and a half more months of learning in a year in reading than students in a typical district school and two and a half more months of learning in math. The gains in Boston were even more pronounced: twelve months of additional learning in a year in reading for charter students and thirteen months more in math.

Yet there remain 45,000 students in Massachusetts waiting for a seat in a charter school, thanks mostly to a state-imposed cap on the number of charter schools that can operate in Boston and other low-performing districts. State education officials have been authorizing schools where they can, approving five new charter schools this week and expanding eleven others, but there still isn’t enough supply; the new openings are expected to serve just 3,100 students, half of them in Boston.

“The more schools we open, the longer the waiting list gets,” Massachusetts Charter Public School Association director Marc Kenen told the Boston Globe this week.

The absurdity of the cap becomes more apparent with the achievement gains Bay State charters are showing. Eighty-three percent of Boston charter schools have significantly more positive learning gains than their district-school peers in reading and math, and no Boston charters had significantly lower gains, according to...

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This extensive evaluation of KIPP charter schools, conducted by Mathematica, will impress even the staunchest KIPP skeptics. The study employed two study designs: The researchers compared the cohorts of forty-one KIPP middle schools (more than half of the total KIPP schools) to students in local non-KIPP schools. They also compared KIPP lottery winners in thirteen oversubscribed schools to non-winners. The upshot? Over a three- to four-year span, KIPP students achieved between eight and fourteen months of additional learning growth compared to their non-KIPP-attending peers. These findings hold across all four core subjects for both state tests and a nationally normed, low-stakes exam (meant to test higher-order thinking skills). What’s more, the researchers included students who left their KIPP schools prior to eighth grade, making these effects a valid measure of anyone who has ever enrolled in these middle schools. But while the academic gains of KIPPsters are unimpeachable, the schools’ affects on student attitudes may not be. Apparently, KIPP increases students’ likelihood of arguing, lying to their parents, and losing their temper, according to student surveys—though one has to wonder if KIPP students are simply more likely than non-KIPPsters to own up to such behaviors.

SOURCE: Christina Clark Tuttle, et al., KIPP Middle Schools: Impacts on Achievement and Other Outcomes (Washington, D.C.: Mathematica Policy Research, February 2013)....

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Marco Rubio
Sen. Marco Rubio released an ambitious federal school-choice plan on Tuesday night.
Photo from Speaker Boehner's Flickr account.

The nation was perhaps too preoccupied with Marco Rubio’s gulp heard ‘round the world to notice that the senator, immediately after his Republican response to the president’s State of the Union address Tuesday, released a far-reaching federal school-choice plan. And that’s too bad, for what has emerged this week is the most sweeping congressional idea to empower disadvantaged kids with private school alternatives since the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.

Just as many states now make available tax credit scholarships—cousins to school vouchers—Rubio would empower individuals or corporations to contribute money to nonprofit “scholarship granting organizations” in return for a tax credit—anywhere in the nation.  Those scholarship groups would, in turn, help low-income kids cover the tuition at a private school of their choice.

This is an ambitious plan, but one that would surely face resistance in a Democratically controlled senate that has repeatedly dogged the D.C. voucher program. And while that would not be surprising, it would surely be disappointing, for it would further widen the gulf between the national Democratic Party and a growing number of state Democrats on this issue.

A lot of those state Democrats are in Florida, where Rubio served as House Speaker from 2007...

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Hurrah for Scott Pearson, the executive director of the D.C. Charter School Board, for pointing out the guile of several Washington, D.C., leaders who want to “manage” the accelerating charter school growth in the city under the guise of collaboration. Joint efforts between city, district, and charter leaders are good if they lead to more and better options for all students, but some key city officials sound more like they’re trying to put a brake on the charter momentum.

When the latest figures from D.C. showed that the number of charter school students increased by 10 percent to 34,673 students, it brought the charter school market share of public education in the city to 43 percent. This led David A. Catania, the chairman of the D.C. Council’s new education committee, to tell the Washington Post on Sunday that there ought to be a way to help charter schools and district schools learn to co-exist, even if that means “a momentary pause” on charter growth. Similarly, Mayor Vincent C. Gray wants his education cabinet to develop a coordinated “road map for public education” in the city.

Pearson was right to challenge statements like these, telling Post reporter Emma Brown, “I’m not interested in joint planning as a cover to put some sort of moratorium on charters.”

Indeed, any hint that charter growth should slow or “pause” in the spirit of collaboration ignores a fundamental reality: D.C. charters are building enough leverage to lead any conversation on collaboration...

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Quality education
Nurturing quality charters takes wherewithal, political capital, and—above all—interest.
Photo by woodleywonderworks.

The One Million Lives Campaign launched in the fall by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers has captured popular (and media) attention, mostly for its call to shutter the worst-performing charter schools. But that’s only half of its purpose. The point of “One Million Lives,” as its name suggests, is to create the conditions that allow a million kids a seat in at least 3,000 high-performing schools.

So let’s take a moment to consider the other half of this worthy effort. Parker Baxter, NACSA’s Director of Knowledge and one of the charter movement’s smarter thinkers on growth and accountability, has taken to the Dell Foundation’s blog to encourage authorizers and policy makers to find ways to replace bad charter schools with good charter schools.

As hard as it’s been to close bad schools, nurturing high-flying charters is at least as tricky: It takes wherewithal, political capital, and—above all—interest, or at least the adoption of laws and practices that provide an easier path for high-flying charters to prosper. Baxter recognizes this and points out some more obvious steps to quality (approving new schools carefully and establishing high standards for performance), while urging states to consider more relatively difficult ideas to...

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This report from Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (widely known as CREDO) investigates, among other questions, whether it’s possible to predict the long-term academic success (or failure) of a charter school during its early years. The authors examined five years’ worth of data from more than 1,300 schools run by 167 charter-management organizations (CMOs) and 410 schools run by education-management organizations (EMOs). (Per CREDO, a CMO directly operates the schools in its network; an EMO contracts with a governing authority to operate the school.) To assess the quality of these outfits, CREDO paired charter-going students with “virtual twins” from their neighborhood district school. The analysts offer four key findings. First, initial signs of school quality are predictive of later performance: Roughly 80 percent of charter schools in the bottom quintile of performance during its first year of operation remain low performers through their fifth year. And 94 percent of schools that begin in the top quintile stay there over time. (Of course, we know from our experience as an Ohio charter authorizer that there are exceptions to this rule.) Second—as we’ve heard before—CMO quality varies greatly: Across the management organizations that were examined, 43 percent outpace the learning gains of their local district schools in reading and 37 percent do so in math. Yet a third have average gains that are worse in reading, and half do worse in math. Third, the quality of a replica charter is roughly the same as the flagship school—two-thirds of CMOs...

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No single philanthropic organization has put more effort and money into the advancement and improvement of school choice—both public and private—than the Walton Family Foundation, which just announced total education-reform outlays in 2012 totaling $158 million. That represents about 37 percent of Walton’s total philanthropic investment during the year. (In second place are freshwater conservation and other environmental concerns.).

While Walton is frequently lauded (and attacked) for its contributions to efforts that shape education policy (contributions that totaled $61 million last year, a bit of that to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute), far more went to foster quality schooling.

For instance, nearly $15 million went to the Charter School Growth Fund, a nonprofit venture-capital group that works to expand the number of seats in high-performing charter networks (a mission the fund has executed with notable success, as attested in the new CREDO report on charter school growth and quality).  About $8.4 million went to the acclaimed KIPP Foundation and $3.2 million to the highly regarded school-leadership group called Building Excellent Schools. A whopping $24 million went to groups like the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and various state-level charter associations to improve existing schools. So while it’s true that the foundation has, through its largesse, advanced our public policies in ways that enhance parental choice, it has also focused its ambitions and its very substantial checkbook on quality choice, particularly for underserved children.

Much of this, other large philanthropies would shun as too...

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Part of the appeal of National School Choice Week is that it highlights not just our varied (and flourishing) school choice accomplishments but also the need for more—of both the public and private variety. The sobering reality is that, even with burgeoning charter and voucher movements, school choice is largely exercised by families able to afford private school tuition or who move to neighborhoods because of their schools.

There’s no shortage of efforts or ideas to correct this. But now, StudentsFirst, headed up by Michelle Rhee, has proposed some solutions for policy makers who ought to design programs with underserved children in mind while reasonably regulating these programs in the public interest.

In its newest policy brief, StudentsFirst details its support of enhancing quality options for disadvantaged families through charter schools and school vouchers—with an emphasis on quality. While its support for school choice has been established since its founding, StudentsFirst brings to the debate some common sense reforms that would make these efforts more politically sustainable.

Yes, as the brief documents, there remains a persistent funding gap between charter schools and traditional school districts that needs to be addressed, and lawmakers must find ways to enable charters to better access facilities; doing otherwise treats some public school students differently from others. But enhancing these options comes with responsibilities: requiring performance-based contracts for charters as well as greater accountability of charter authorizers and clear triggers for closing low-performing schools (all measures long advanced by the Fordham Institute).

Additionally,...

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Red Tape or Red Herring?

Will private schools avoid voucher and tax credit scholarship programs if they’re overregulated? Many friends of private school choice insist that they will, particularly if these schools are required to participate in testing and accountability mandates. But the findings from a new study released today by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute indicate these friends might need an intervention.

In their report, School Choice Regulations: Red Tape or Red Herring?, researchers David Stuit and Sy Doan find little evidence that policymakers should avoid testing requirements for fear that private schools will avoid voucher and tax credit scholarship programs altogether. In fact, in a survey of school leaders who qualify for four existing private school choice programs, just 25 percent said that state assessment rules figured “very importantly” into their decision on whether to participate.

Of greater concern to these school leaders were laws that forced them to revise their admissions criteria or restricted their religious practices, indicating that private schools were allergic to policies that made them less “private.” But, chiefly, just 3 percent of private schools that opted not to participate in these programs cited government regulations as the most important reason. Indeed, more schools opted out because there weren’t enough eligible students in their vicinity to begin with.

This doesn’t imply that policy makers...

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