Choice Words

It may seem absurd that one of California’s worst-performing school districts can kill the state’s finest charter school network. But that is the reality facing the 650 mostly poor and minority, but very high-achieving students enrolled at the American Indian Model charter schools. The Oakland Unified School District voted 4-3 last month to shut down the network after a state audit reported that a lack of financial controls allowed the charter’s former principal and chief executive, Ben Chavis, to improperly enrich himself with millions of dollars of school business.

It is, however, hard to see how the Oakland district could have responded differently. The audit, which was issued in June 2012, concluded that Chavis was able to channel $3.8 million from school accounts to his personal business interests—mostly because the charter’s governing board “failed to maintain and exercise its responsibilities, authority, and control.”

Indeed, the audit showed that a charismatic and assertive school leader had control over American Indian’s governing board instead of the other way around.  Auditors found multiple examples of self-dealing and conflicts of interest in transactions that benefitted Chavis’ consulting, real estate, and construction enterprises—transactions that often put Chavis in the position as landlord to the schools he led. But there were no evidence that the board approved these dealings or ever put them out for competitive bidding. “The lack of due diligence and internal controls by the governing board has effectively granted [Chavis] and his spouse unrestricted access to the assets of the organization and...

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Compromise is rarely considered a political virtue. That’s why political analyst Peter Wehner made a distinction between compromise and prudence. “Compromise can’t be judged in the abstract,” Wehner wrote for Commentary. “It can only be assessed in particular circumstances. It takes wisdom and statesmanship to discern when to hold firm (on fundamental principles) and when to give ground (on tactics and secondary issues).”

The description helps us parse two different outcomes on school choice legislation in two states: Mississippi and Tennessee. In the former, at least one charter school advocate bemoaned the “compromised bill” that went last week to Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, a bill that finally allows start-up charters in the Magnolia State and an independent state authorizer but also allows better-performing districts to effectively neuter that new state body. In the latter, Tennessee’s Republican Governor Bill Haslam decided last week to pull his favored voucher bill before letting any legislative members of his party amend it. Haslam sought a limited voucher program for low-income students in low-performing districts, whereas Republicans lawmakers wanted to enlarge it to serve more families.

No doubt Haslam wants private school choice in the Volunteer State. Last year, he directed education commissioner Kevin Huffman to lead a task force to study how a voucher program would best work and embraced the concept in January when he appeared with Jeb Bush at a forum on education reform. But he never once made room for negotiation; when legislators...

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Andy Rotherham deserves respect as one of the most thoughtful proponents of education reform, as well as an impressive institution-builder. He and I probably agree on 90 percent of the issues, though we have sparred at times over the federal role, the balance between “excellence and equity,” and sundry other topics.

My greatest frustration, though, has been his unwillingness to offer full-throated support for school vouchers.

Maybe he’s finally ready. In a blog post yesterday, he predicted that if current reform efforts stall, the future will bring a “low-accountability environment coupled with much more choice” and pointed to the Indiana voucher program (recently upheld by that state’s Supreme Court and hailed by Michael Gerson in the Washington Post) as a sign of things to come.

What Andy may not fully appreciate is that Indiana’s voucher program has accountability in spades. As David Stuit and Sy Doan explain in their recent report for Fordham, School Choice Regulations: Red Tape or Red Herring? , the Hoosier State has an “annual performance-accountability rating system” for participating private schools that is based on the results of state assessments—the same tests that public school pupils take. Indeed, the fact that private schools will soon be held accountable under Common Core standards and assessments has become a major issue in the Hoosier State—because it gives palpitations to the right, not the left! (Other recently enacted private-school-choice programs, including those in Louisiana and Alabama, also include significant testing and accountability requirements.)

So if...

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It is, perhaps, no longer news to see yet another 1.5 percent decline in Catholic school enrollment in the United States. However, two separate but related facts make this year’s annual statistical report from the National Catholic Educational Association more troubling.

1.    Charter enrollment exceeded Catholic school enrollment for the first time this school year (in 2011–12, each sector had about the same number of students). Catholic school enrollment dropped 1.5 percent to 2,001,740 students, while charter school enrollment increased 13 percent to 2,326,542 students. From here on, any graph plotting student numbers in each sector likely will look like a pair of open scissors.

2.    A recent report from U.S. Census Bureau researcher Stephanie Ewert shows that private school enrollment is negatively associated with charter school enrollment. This is similar to what economist Richard Buddin found in his report last year for the Cato Institute when he looked at charter and private school enrollment trends from 2000 to 2008. Ewert looks at more recent years and found that states with substantial increases in charter school enrollment experienced substantial decreases in private school enrollment—particularly at Catholic schools.

Vouchers and tax-credit scholarships have surely offset some of those shifting patterns (Buddin noted that 190,000 students left private schools for charter schools between 2000 and 2008, but about that same number got public aid for private schools by the end of that time period). Most of those private-school-choice programs, however, are so limited in scope, their vouchers so limited...

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The New York Times published a semi-balanced story today on the growth of the private school–choice movement—and attention is always welcome—but it also helped perpetuate two nagging myths about vouchers and tax-credit scholarships:

1.    Reporters Fernanda Santos and Motoko Rich wrote, “Research tracking students in voucher programs has also not shown clear improvements in performance.” Not true. As nine scholars and analysts noted in an Education Week essay published last year, results from gold-standard voucher research have consistently shown (among other positive effects) modest academic gains and outsize graduation rates among voucher recipients when compared to their public school–district peers.

2.    The story also repeated the fable that vouchers are accompanied by no accountability for academic results. Wrong. Choice advocate Dick Komer of the firm Institute for Justice told the Times that the only real accountability that matters is parental choice. Voucher opponent and union chief Randi Weingarten railed, “There’s absolutely no accountability with vouchers.” Both are wrong.

In fact, the two newest voucher programs, both of which have captured much attention (Indiana and Lousiana), as well as the proposed initiative in Tennessee, make clear that underperforming private schools won’t be welcome in these programs, for these (and many other) choice programs require participating private schools to administer the same assessments as are given in public schools and bar schools from continuing in the program if their assessment results are weak and stay that way.

It turns out that the oldest voucher program United States, the...

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When the charter school movement started twenty-plus years ago, charters represented a radical innovation in governance: School districts would no longer enjoy an “exclusive franchise” on local public schools; they would compete with public, independent, autonomous (but accountable) charter schools too.

Charter governance brief
In the last twenty years, American education and its charter sector have evolved in important ways.

Much has happened in the charter sector since then—in fact, what began as a community-led, mom-and-pop movement has evolved to include a burgeoning assemblage of charter school networks, as well. But the laws ruling charter school governance remain largely the same. It’s time for a reboot in order to address three critical problems.

First, state laws and authorizer policies often require a full-fledged governing board for every charter school, and these policies make no exception for high-performing charter networks (such as KIPP and Rocketship Education). Thus, replicating at scale is difficult. In fact, only ten states explicitly allow for networks to operate multiple schools under the oversight of one governing board* and three states (Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Iowa) explicitly prohibit the practice.

Second, management organizations—especially for-profits—often control their schools’ governing boards, leading to serious questions about accountability and conflicts of interest. The Fordham Institute, both as an education think tank and a charter school authorizer in Ohio, firmly believes that governing boards and...

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Ordinarily, states that measure the academic performance of public school students assess students with disabilities no differently than students in general education. But exceptions are made, primarily for children with severe cognitive disabilities. And testing accommodations frequently are part of a student’s Individualized Education Plan (such as extending the time it takes to take a test).

Those exceptions partly explain why the Thomas B. Fordham Institute excluded special-education voucher programs from a study of how private schools view the regulations that come with various voucher and tax-credit-scholarship programs. Traditional testing tools aren’t always the best measure for students with special needs, but that doesn’t mean no accountability measures should follow special-needs students who leave a public school for a private school with a publicly funded voucher.

Virtually no accountability measures, however, exist in most of the nation’s special-education voucher programs, including the largest such program in the United States, Florida’s McKay Scholarship for Students with Disabilities. And the coalition of schools that oversees the McKay program appears to want to keep it that way—and it’s wrong to do so.

The McKay Coalition surveyed its own Florida schools after Fordham published School Choice Regulations: Red Tape or Red Herring, which surveyed private schools in communities served by four prominent voucher programs in Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin. The Fordham report found that only 3 percent of non-participating schools cited governmental regulations as the most important reason to opt out. Regulations that restrict student admissions and schools’ religious practices are more likely...

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The Georgia Senate recently took an incremental step toward responsible and accountable private school choice by unanimously passing a bill that shines more sunlight upon the Peach State’s embattled tax-credit-scholarship program. If the House concurs, then parents and taxpayers will have more information about the students and the scholarship groups that participate—a good thing, to be sure.

A Kindergarten graduation
Picture by Santa Catalina School

But Senate Bill 243 doesn’t go far enough. Yes, it requires the nonprofit groups that administer the scholarships to disclose the number of students they serve and the amount of tax-credited donations that they receive. Well worth making public—but it reveals nothing about the program’s educational value.

Why not also pull back the curtain on student performance? Most of the school-voucher and tax-credit-scholarship programs that exist in other states are designed to show the public at least how they’re performing overall in terms of student achievement. For example, private schools participating in the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship administer a standardized test to their scholarship students and report the results to an independent analyst, who then studies the program’s effectiveness and reports to the legislature.

For a quartet of reasons, Georgia should at least do something similar.

1.    Parents, policymakers, educators, and the taxpaying public deserve to compare the gains that students make in different school environments....

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Alabama Governor Robert Bentley today signed into law his state’s first private school choice program—a K–12 tuition tax credit—avoiding what was perhaps the most ridiculous attempt yet to thwart efforts to enact a voucher or tax-credit plan anywhere.

Bentley put his signature on the Alabama Accountability Act one day after the state’s Supreme Court lifted a restraining order that prevented him from even getting the bill, which passed two weeks ago along party lines. The Alabama Education Association had convinced a state judge last week to block legislative staffers from sending the bill to the governor, arguing that too many Republican lawmakers privately discussed rewriting a separate measure to include the tax credit without calling a public meeting.

The Alabama Supreme Court sensibly determined that the restraining order issued by Judge Charles Price was “premature.” The bill hadn’t even become law, and according to the top justices, there was no “existing case or controversy” that needed adjudicating.

In other words, there was no one harmed. As political scientist Joshua Dunn noted, courts don’t typically intrude in the internal workings of a state legislature, as a matter of separation of powers. The notion that the teacher union might have suffered “irreparable harm” without the restraining order (Judge Price’s words) was ludicrous.

Now that the bill is law, Bentley and others who supported the tax credit can expect a lawsuit. And families whose children are zoned to a failing public school and who are hoping for the private school...

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Joshua Dunn

Farce has been standard fare in litigation over school choice since the Supreme Court’s 2002 decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris upholding the constitutionality of vouchers. At the time of Zelman, chief counsel for the National Education Association (NEA) said the organization would rely on “Mickey-Mouse provisions” in state constitutions to attack choice programs. No claim was too ridiculous. But farce doesn’t seem to capture what happened last week in Alabama.

Theater of the Absurd
Farce does not seem to capture what happened last week in Alabama.

Two weeks ago, the Alabama House and Senate passed the Alabama Accountability Act, giving parents with children in failing schools a tax credit for tuition at a private school. The bill passed by 2-1 margins in both houses of the Republican-controlled legislature. Naturally, organizations such as the Alabama Education Association (AEA), opposed as they are to letting students escape miserably failing schools, howled that the measure violated state law. But this time, rather than at least having the decency to sue once the legislation was signed, the AEA decided to lawyer up before it even reached the governor’s desk.

Initially, the act was called the School Flexibility Act and did not include tax credits. After the House and Senate passed different versions of the act, the conference committee added the tax-credit provision and changed the name....

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