Choice Words

The first results of the statewide testing of Indiana’s voucher students shows generally good marks for private schools participating in the program.  The group School Choice Indiana recently highlighted that voucher schools had an average 91 percent pass rate on the language arts portion of the test known as ISTEP+ and had an average 89 percent pass rate on the math portion. These exceeded the public school averages.

Rays of Light
Indiana deserves credit for shinging light on the performance of schools with voucher students.
Photo by Yorick_R.

In fact, NPR’s StateImpact Indiana reports that 171 of the 224 private schools in Indiana participating in the state’s new voucher program posted higher-than-average passing rates, and the average ISTEP+ pass rate at all schools receiving vouchers was 9 percentage points higher than the state’s overall average. But StateImpact also looked more closely at the schools that posted lower-than-average passing rates. Although that number only came to 41 voucher schools, those schools enrolled, on average, higher concentrations of voucher students.

As with most voucher and tax-credit-scholarship programs, relatively few private schools in Indiana rely on the program for most of their revenues; most students pay privately. But, outside Indiana, we have little evidence of student performance at those private schools that rely heavily on voucher revenue.

There are...

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Charter schools may be celebrating twenty years of existence, but the milestone gets most of them no closer to the surplus classroom space and facility financing controlled by local school boards.

Charters struggle to access surplus classroom space and facility financing controlled by local school boards.

Where local facility financing and public school space has come through for charters, it’s been at the behest of mayors, governors, and legislators who understand that charter schools are public schools and any system that obstructs their ability to get classroom space treats some public school students differently from others. Consider one example that Nelson Smith highlights in the current Education Next: Milwaukee Public Schools had been spending $1 million a year to maintain twenty-seven surplus school buildings that they refused to sell to charter schools. Why sell to the competition? The state legislature had to step in to allow the City of Milwaukee to sell the buildings over the school district’s objections.

Most states that have charter school laws, even laws that provide charters with at least some facility funding, can tell similar stories, and changing the circumstances isn’t easy. When a Florida senator wanted to force school districts to share as much as $140 million in local facility funding with charter schools, editorial pages throughout the state tried reminding readers that charters were supposed to do more with less. The proposal later died.

Smith, the former chief of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, highlights some positive signs....

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Would Henry V have benefitted from an all-boys school? David Brooks, in his critique of the American school scene, doesn’t look to single-gender schools to re-engage children like the rambunctious and adversarial Prince Hal, but officials at the U.S. Department of Education surely had boys like him in mind when they relaxed restrictions on single-sex public education six years ago.

prince hal and the moon
Perhaps Prince Hal could've used an all-boys school.
Photo by Kevin Rawlings.

Those revised Title IX regulations allowed single-sex education to flourish. Nearly 400 public schools nationwide currently offer single-gender classrooms (ten years ago, there were only a dozen) and another 116 schools exist to serve either all boys or all girls. The freedom to establish these schools comes with a sensible caveat: The option must be voluntary for families. An Associated Press report last week radiated more heat than light on this growth, but it reminded us of the move to engage children like Henry with the methods Brooks says may be more effective for some boys than others: competition over cooperation; boot camps over friendship circles.

Leonard Sax, the founder and chief executive of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, contends that some boys need to embrace Spartacus before they can learn...

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The folks at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice have put out a call for research proposals that explore the effects that choice and competition have on K-12 education.

The foundation is looking for proposals from individual researchers or groups of researchers on any school choice topic related to vouchers, education savings accounts, and tax credit scholarships. Accepted projects will receive contracts that range from $5,000 to $15,000, and priority will go to research that has implications for choice program design, policymaking and advocacy.

Proposals should be 800 words or less and should be submitted no later than 5PM September 4 to Paul DiPerna, the Friedman Foundation’s research director, at paul@edchoice.org or at One American Square, Suite 2420, Indianapolis, IN 46282. Researchers should include a cover sheet identifying the primary project contact as well as names(s), affiliation, telephone, and e-mail address. Those who submit proposals will learn of their status by November 15.

See here for suggested topics and a suggested proposal structure.

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Despite persistent hostility to charter school expansion in most states, there remains one aspect of charter schooling that fails to get the attention it deserves: athletics.

The limitations on charter school students’ access to sports penalize children and parents for choosing an alternative to a traditional public school. With considerable research showing the positive contribution that athletics participation has towards academic success, depriving students of this opportunity is not only unjust, it’s counterproductive to raising student achievement.

American Football
The actions of policymakers against charter school athletics are emblematic of the treatment of charters at large.
Photo by Anderson Mancini.

It is no coincidence that in areas where charter schools have proven academically effective and where they capture a larger share of the student population—Washington, DC, and New Orleans, in particular—charter school sports teams are finally gaining acceptance. An editorial in the Washington Post praised athletics director Clark Ray and noted that a “cruel inequity is coming to an end with the long-overdue decision by city officials to create an equal playing field for the growing numbers of charter school student-athletes.” This coming school year, DC will finally allow its charter-school teams, including some the best football squads in the area, to compete for city championships. One such school, Friendship Collegiate Academy, had...

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The Supreme Court ruling that upheld the Affordable Care Act has many of us talking about checks and balances, so let’s use this teachable moment to examine how separate branches of North Carolina’s government have left its first virtual charter school in limbo.

The North Carolina Board of Education simply ignored a law it didn’t like.

A Wake County Superior Court judge ruled Friday that the North Carolina Virtual Academy can’t open this fall because the state’s Board of Education never said it could. The academy had won preliminary approval from the county school board where it would have been based, but Judge Abraham Penn said that ultimate approval lies with the state board.

The problem—one that even Judge Penn acknowledges—is that the state board refused to even consider the academy’s legitimate application. And this is where governance in the Tar Heel State breaks down.

When North Carolina’s 2011 legislative session ended in the summer of that year, lawmakers lifted the cap on the number of charter schools in the state and allowed for the creation of virtual charters. Months later, in October 2011, state Board of Education Chairman William Harrison told his colleagues, without asking for a vote, that the board would not consider virtual school applications for the academic year starting in fall 2012.

In other words, the Board of Education, whose members are chosen by North Carolina’s executive branch of government, never bothered to advise its Department of Public Instruction how to execute a law established...

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What is the nature of the relationship between a charter school authorizer and a charter school board? Fordham’s Terry Ryan often makes the case, just as he did at the recent conference of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, that it’s similar to a marriage. Spouses bring their own interests and agendas to the union, and it takes a system of checks and balances to keep the marriage from failing, as so many do.

Katie & Porter's Wedding
The marriage between charter schools and their authorizers can be challenging.
Photo by Kimberly Vardeman.

To date, most of our policy discussions have focused on holding one partner in the authorizer-charter relationship accountable: the school itself. Two recent papers suggest we should pay more attention to the inputs and outcomes of the significant other.

One paper comes from David Osborne for the Progressive Policy Institute, who argues that “the key to quality in the charter sector is quality authorizing” and calls for authorizers to do more to close the worst-performing schools (Fordham’s Ryan reviewed the paper this week on the Ohio Gadfly Daily). The other is a policy brief that comes from Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst and recommends strengthening state laws that encourage performance contracts between authorizers and charters and even suggests greater accountability...

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Terry Ryan, Fordham's vice president for Ohio programs and policy, posted a review of David Osborne's new paper on charter school accountability that anyone interested in school choice, whether he or she lives in the Buckeye State or not, shouldn't miss. As Terry writes on the Ohio Gadfly Daily blog, Osborne focuses on authorizer quality,

the single biggest driver of charter school quality. Osborne writes, “Today, it is time to open a third frontier: authorizer quality. The key to quality in the charter sector is quality authorizing.” When I read this sentence I wanted to jump out of my chair and do a quick dance around my desk. Fordham has been arguing—with our friends at organizations like the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) and the National Charter Alliance—this case since at least the mid-2000s, both in Ohio and nationally. The hard fact is that most people—and this includes lawmakers, policy makers, and others involved in setting education policy—have no idea what authorizers are, what they do, or why they matter.

Read the rest of the review for Terry's perspective on why that's such a crucial problem.

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There has been a lot of hand-wringing in the last week about whether charter schools are doing enough to enroll students with disabilities. But are we looking closely at who is among the learning disabled?

Are we looking closely at who is among the learning disabled?

The GAO’s report on charter schools and special education found that students with learning disabilities were the largest group benefitting from special services at the charter or district schools the government studied. That’s not surprising, given that learning-disabled students represented 38 percent of all students who received special education services in 2009, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The rest were categorized with having varying disabilities, but autism and developmental disabilities made up just 12 percent of all students who received special services.

Education Sector interim chief John Chubb made a good case yesterday for why the best schools—district or charter—overcome learning disabilities with strong schooling and that it’s a mistake to presume there is a fixed percentage of special-needs students that ought to be enrolled at charter schools. But he doesn’t have a lot of company. Instead, charter critics and commentators have made this an issue of social justice, demanding that either charter schools do more to enroll high-needs students or at least acknowledge that they’re largely ignoring kids with special needs.

When education journalist John Merrow moderated the opening panel at last week’s conference of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in Minneapolis, he repeatedly tried to...

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Louisiana schools Superintendent John White has plenty of freedom to write the rules that will govern what may become the most sweeping voucher program in the nation, but he has little time to do the job. The legislature has given White until August 1 to figure out how to hold private schools accountable for their voucher students, but the more dogged critics of the superintendent and the voucher program want assurances now that no student will leave a lousy public school for a lousy private school.

In many ways, White is entering uncharted territory.

In many ways, White is entering uncharted territory. At least fifteen states have passed laws establishing vouchers or tax credit scholarships, but just a handful  now assess the academic or financial health of the private schools that participate. So it’s helpful to reflect first on what already sets Louisiana apart before suggesting more ways to make the voucher program accountable.

First, any private school accepting voucher students will have to submit an independent financial audit to the Louisiana Department of Education. Until now, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program had some of the most stringent fiscal regulations, requiring independent audits of private schools that received more than $250,000 in scholarship revenue. Few other state programs have anything of the sort.

Second, lawmakers put Louisiana in small company (currently consisting of Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin) when they required private schools to administer the same standardized test given to public school students.

But the law specifies...

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