Democracy Prep is expanding in a novel way next school year ? by taking over a failing charter school at its authorizer's behest. SUNY was set to deny Harlem Day Charter School's charter but instead asked for proposals to turn the school around. Democracy Prep stepped up.
It's a huge risk. By and large, turnarounds are unsuccessful. For Democracy Prep, which had the city's highest progress report score for a middle school last year, this would be its first attempt at a turnaround. In New York City, the Bloomberg administration has relied largely on shutting failing schools down and re-starting from scratch, a method that critics say disperses the neediest children and destabilizes communities. Under Mr. Lambert's plan, the students stay put, and the management and board are wiped out.
It's great to see "acquisitions" like this one. Democracy Prep is a solid performer, and this gives them a new school complete with kids, parent and community recognition, and some momentum. Clearly it comes with challenges as well, however, with more than 40% of their kids being held back to repeat a grade. The question this raises for me is, why do we wait to talk about these kinds of takeovers until a school is failing?
Entrepreneurs, charter school founders among them, start businesses for many reasons. Not all of them are great long-term managers. Instead, what the most successful of them have is a keen sense of the needs of customers
Pennsylvania is trying to fix a thorny problem with virtual schools. If two kids attend a virtual school, one from a high spending district that sends along $10,000 in their backpack to the virtual school, and another from low spending district that sends $6,000, the former child's district is subsidizing the latter's education. It's a tough issue.
The solution proposed on Monday by Rep. James Roebuck (D-Phila.) is extreme, however. He proposes that the state pay the entire bill for virtual-school students, as well as youngsters in traditional charter schools, leaving more resources to educate fewer kids in district schools. Since there's on a finite amount of money available for public education in the state, this short-changes children who attend schools of choice.?The proposal also defeats one of the purposes of school choice: competition for students and the resources to educate them.
Virtual schools present some unique governance and school-finance challenges, but rewarding districts for failing to serve kids effectively is not a good solution. Instead, Pennsylvania legislators should develop a financing system where the state steps in to correct disparities but still allows as much local funding as possible to follow a child wherever he or she goes in the education system. Pennsylvania's citizens are taxed to provide resources for all children in public schools, not to preserve buildings and jobs in the traditional system of district schools.
The US Department of Education has hired a new director of its Federal Charter Schools Program, which oversees a variety of grant programs for starting and replicating public charter schools, as well as credit enhancements to help them afford high-quality facilities. Stefan Huh, the new director, is leaving DC's Office the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) after four years running the Office of Public Charter School Financing and Support there. (Full disclosure: I worked for Stefan at OSSE last summer and consider him a mentor and an important influence on my decision to work full-time in education after business school.)
Stefan's tenure in DC provides some hopeful signs that ED will continue to step up its game on charters. First, while he's a strong advocate for public charter schools, he focused strongly on school quality while running the program at OSSE. For instance, the office added a competitive grant component to its teacher compensation program last summer, developed by my colleague Jessica Sutter.
Second, Huh is not a natural-born bureaucrat ? he understands that building more quality schools means taking calculated risks. For example, most of ED's grantees in the Credit Enhancement Program for charter school facilities have used those funds in safe ways that have not dramatically increased access to capital for new charters. Texas uses its $10 million from the Department only for bond financing, which typically only very mature, safe charters can access. Under Stefan's direction, DC has
Markets are a tool with many uses, and we employ them broadly in our society because on balance they create a lot of good. Kevin Welner doesn't see it that way, however, especially in education (PDF):
This points to what should be the fundamental progressive response?the critique that many progressives seem hesitant to seize: that educational opportunities should be among the most precious public goods. While public education does provide an important private benefit to children and their families, it also lies at the center of our societal well-being. Educational opportunities should therefore never be distributed by market forces, because markets exist to create inequalities?they thrive by creating ?winners? and? ?losers.?
Progressives may be hesitant to seize this critique because it's wrong and misunderstands markets. First, Welner ignores consumers. If Wal-Mart and another retailer compete, in a well-functioning market the consumer wins by paying lower prices, enjoying higher quality, or both, regardless of whether Wal-Mart or its competitor wins a given customer's business. Markets don't exist for the sake of competition, or to provide wealth for "winning" competitors. Competition is intended to serve end users.
Second, education markets, unlike the ones in business, are not usually tasked with allocating profits. Even in places where for-profit charter operators are permitted, profits for those operators should not be a primary or even secondary concern of the education system. Instead, markets provide a mechanism for empowering parents, decentralizing decision-making, and fostering a variety of educational
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About the Editor
Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow
Chris Tessone was a Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow and the Director of Finance of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He has strong interests in governance and education finance, especially teacher compensation and school facilities finance.