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,
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
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
Indiana’s Ball State University has delivered on its pledge to end contracts with the worst-performing charter schools in its portfolio, and its action will strengthen the charter movement overall.
For it was Ball State’s charters that erased many of the learning gains Indiana charters made in the past five years, according to Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes. Statewide, charter students gained what amounted to an additional month and a half of learning on their district school peers, and CREDO’s Macke Raymond concluded that such strong gains would have been even better were it not for Ball State–authorized schools. “They’re not helping,” Raymond told the Indianapolis Star. “The responsibility is pretty clearly on the authorizer.”
Credit ought to go to Ball State’s Office of Charter Schools for recognizing the problem. Bob Marra, the office’s executive director, has visibly grown frustrated with the performance of the schools the university has authorized. And this week, he and his team opted to end contracts with seven of their schools and offer contract extensions of just three years to seven others, provided they meet certain performance conditions. Two other charters withdrew their own requests for renewals.
All of these schools should have seen this coming. Not only has Ball State worked with the National Association of Charter School Authorizers during the past eighteen months to create a new accountability system for all of its charters, the university has repeatedly told its most
About the Editor
Director, Program on Parental Choice
Adam Emerson is the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s school choice czar, directing the Institute’s policy program on parental choice and editing the Choice Words blog. He coordinates the Institute’s school choice-related research projects, policy analyses and commentaries on issues that include charter schools and public school choice along with school vouchers, homeschooling and digital learning.
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