Quality Choices

Nationally and in Ohio, we strive to develop policies and practices leading to a lively, accessible marketplace of high-quality education options for every young American (including charter schools, magnet schools, voucher programs, and online courses), as well as families empowered and informed so that they can successfully engage with that marketplace.

Whitney Marcavage

The American Federation for Children applauds the folks over at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute for stirring up debate about academic accountability within private-school-choice programs via the release of their policy “toolkit” last week. It’s an important conversation to have.

As the only national educational-choice organization that works to elect state policymakers who support parental choice, lobbies for high-quality legislation, and ensures that the laws work for kids, we’ve got a pretty good sense of the policy and political questions regarding accountability in private-school-choice programs. 
We support accountability in publicly funded private-school-choice programs, and our model legislation spells out the very reasonable administrative, financial, and academic accountability measures we believe are necessary to ensure quality, sustainability, and growth in these vitally important programs. Transparency is important for both parents and policymakers, and AFC believes that voucher and scholarship-tax-credit students should take either state assessments or a nationally norm-referenced test and that the results should be reported publicly. It is perfectly reasonable (1) to know whether children enrolled in these programs are making academic progress and (2) to acknowledge and address the issue of whether poor-quality schools should participate in these programs.

It is also important to recognize that the children entering these programs are typically behind their peers academically, regardless of whether they are entering in Kindergarten or higher grades. It is not reasonable to use the snapshot of a voucher student’s first-year test score (state assessment or nationally norm-referenced test) to pass judgment on the school’s performance. It...

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It’s no fun to argue with friends—at least not about serious matters—and worse to find respected colleagues slipping into error or avoiding reality. But that’s my regretful take on where Jay Greene and Rick Hess have headed on the (admittedly tricky) issue of accountability for voucher schools.

The policy question is indisputably important: are voucher-bearing kids, their parents, and the policymakers and taxpayers who make their participation possible well served by the education they acquire at the private schools they attend? Is this a good investment of public dollars? Is it worth the political tussles that such programs invariably trigger?

Similar questions must be asked about youngsters who benefit from tax-credit scholarships, the difference being that the dollars involved in those programs are not actually “public.” Rather, they are monies that never enter the public fisc because they are routed into the scholarship programs instead. But that, too, is an education investment arising from politically fraught decisions by policy makers—and anyone who cares about either an individual child’s education or the cultivation of an educated society must also ask whether these schools are effective.

Believing that these are important matters, we at Fordham have, on several occasions, urged an “accountability” regime for private-school-choice programs that includes both test results and fiscal transparency on the part of participating schools. We’ve also recommended a “sliding scale” whereby a school’s continued participation in the program would hinge in part on the...

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With great fanfare, the Dispatch’s recent bombshell article outed seventeen charter schools in the Columbus region that closed within the past year. The closures occurred for a variety of reasons, ranging from fiscal woes to unsanitary conditions. Spicy material, yes, but beyond the headline, the Dispatch published a no-less-important companion piece that outlined the role of charter-school authorizers (or “sponsors”), of which Fordham is one.

Few people probably know that authorizers exist, much less what they do. But authorizers are crucial cogs in the charter-school system, as they perform four major tasks: they (1) review applications for a new charter school; (2) establish a contract with a school to allow it to open; (3) ensure compliance; and (4) renew (or non-renew) a contract with the school. We at Fordham take our responsibilities as an authorizer seriously, and we support the principles of rigorous authorizing standards set forth by the National Association of Charter School Authorizing (NACSA). Many authorizers in Ohio do the same—though seemingly not all, as evidenced in the Dispatch’s article. As charter-school quality comes into greater focus for the Buckeye State, authorizers and their practices must come under the microscope. But first, here are a few things to know about authorizers in Ohio.

1.)   Ohio has a smorgasbord of charter authorizers

Sixty-eight entities currently authorize at least one of Ohio’s 393 charter schools. Such entities include the Ohio Department of Education (ODE), thirteen educational-service centers (ESCs),...

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The first thing that strikes you while reading Breaking the Cycle is an embodiment of the phrase “meeting students where they live.” Many of the life stories of students at Dayton Early College Academy (DECA) are told through the students’ own writings—school assignments that don’t run from or sugarcoat lives of poverty, deprivation, abuse, and hopelessness in all their varied ugliness. Dr. Judy Hennessey, superintendent and CEO of DECA, and her team instead turn those experiences into lessons in tenacity and motivation, with notable success. The realities of absent or neglectful parents are dealt with in the contracts signed by adults and students with the school—no parent, no problem—we’ll do all we can to help this child succeed. Any responsible adult (pastor, uncle, grandmother) who will commit to be a partner in and to be held accountable for that child’s success will do. The obstacles to academic achievement for poor urban youth are myriad, pervasive, and no secret to anyone. What makes DECA so special—as Dr. Diggs shows us through her research, spare and insightful prose, and heaping helpings of DECA students and staffers’ own thoughts and words—is that these obstacles can be addressed head on and torn down. The obstacles are replaced with high academic goals, a relentless focus on the future, and the message that students at DECA don’t need to lose the essence of who they are to emerge from their circumstances and succeed. Who they will become is not constrained by where they...

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Last week, the Fordham Institute released a report with recommendations on accountability in publicly funded private-school-choice programs. The furor it has incited among school-choice advocates around the country (here, here, and here) is palpable but not unexpected. Their concerns are many, but in a Flypaper piece, Mike Petrilli responds that the consequences of bad schools—bad schools of all types—are too real to ignore.

In Ohio, home to five private-school-choice programs (more voucher programs than any other state), the recommendations have not caused an uproar, perhaps because many of the report’s recommendations are already in law within Buckeye borders.

1.) Require that all students who receive a voucher (or tax-credit scholarship) participate in state assessments.

While this is probably the most controversial recommendation, four out of five of Ohio’s programs (all but the Autism Scholarship) already mandate this by law. Ohio’s largest private voucher program, the EdChoice Scholarship, has required participants to take the state assessment from the time it was first proposed. Credit for including this provision goes to the foresight of key players at the time: Governor Bob Taft, House Speaker Jon Husted, and Senate President Bill Harris. With more than 31,000 students now using vouchers in Ohio and the numbers steadily growing every year, there’s no sign that it has had a negative impact on participation by either private schools or students or that it has warped the schools’ autonomy or mission.

2.) Mandate public disclosure of those assessment results,...

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This week, we at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute released a “toolkit” for policymakers working to create or expand private-school-choice programs. In it, we argue that students receiving publicly funded scholarships or vouchers should take state assessments and that the results should be reported publicly. Private schools that consistently fail to improve student achievement in math and reading should become ineligible for public subsidies.

Predictably, some of our friends in the school-choice movement—especially those of a more libertarian persuasion—responded with a resounding “Thanks but no thanks.” Jason Bedrick of the Cato Institute acknowledged that our proposal is “well intentioned” but finds it “unpersuasive” and “likely to do [more] harm than good.” Greg Forster, writing on Jay Greene’s blog, calls our proposal a “straddle.” Robert Enlow, president of the Friedman Foundation, argues that public oversight of (publicly funded) private schools would be “prone to political decisions and special interests.” And even Matt Ladner, our comrade-in-arms in the Common Core fight, thinks it’s risky to subject private schools to state accountability policies, given that the latter are such a mess.

None of these anxieties surprised us; in fact, we mention most of them in our toolkit. We understand why some worry that

  • Private schools could feel pressure to conform to state standards, reducing or eliminating the educational diversity that makes them attractive (and effective) in the first place;
  • Achievement-based accountability policies might kick low-performing schools out of choice programs that parents have selected for rational and
  • ...
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As voucher and tax-credit-scholarship programs have expand­ed in recent years, another promising development has been the incorporation into such programs of provisions that hold participating private schools to account for their students’ performance. The newest and largest voucher programs, such as those in Louisiana and Indiana, have gone beyond the familiar “let-parents-vote-with-their-feet-and-judge-the-school-by-whether-anyone-wants-to-attend-it” arguments and are doing more to assure parents and taxpayers that private schools accepting scholarship-bearing stu­dents will meet certain expectations regarding how much those youngsters actually learn.

Yet outcomes-based accountability in private-school-choice pro­grams is hardly a settled matter. Many proponents of such programs dis­agree on how to subject private schools to testing requirements or about how external standards will affect whatever is unique about pri­vate schools and why they’re worth choosing in the first place. Yes, there are risks associated with drawing private schools into public accountability systems, but empirical evidence shows that such downsides can be mitigated if policymakers are smart about how they design results-based accountability in these choice programs.

We’ve assembled this toolkit to help with that design. The Fordham Institute supports private-school choice, done right. That means that policymakers should provide an array of high-quality choices—and hold providers accountable to parents and taxpayers in ways that are reasonable.

Our key recommendations

We’ve written model statutory language aimed at strengthening outcomes-based accountability in private-school choice. Readers will find it at the end of the toolkit. But there are three objectives that form the core of our proposal. We recommend that states

  • Require that all students
  • ...
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There were many important releases and developments this week—invaluable new SIG information from IES, Race to the Top audits, new Brookings “choice index”—and I couldn’t keep up! Those subjects and others will get fuller treatments from me next week. But until then, here are some worthwhile things to read over the weekend.

There has been much talk about the 50-year anniversary of The War on Poverty. Here’s the best stuff I’ve seen: This Gerson column smartly points out the federal government’s successes and failures (and though this superb Brooks column on evolving conservative policy thinking isn’t about The War on Poverty per se, it should be read in conjunction with Gerson’s). This short blurb by Checker Finn is terrific; the first-person narrative is compelling, and for history buffs and those fascinated by the intersection of politics and policy, it offers something special. This very good piece by my old high school friend (now at AEI) Josh Good echoes family-related arguments made by Finn’s mentor a half century ago.

If you care at all about Common Core, this Stephanie Simon article about conservative backlash is an absolute must read. There are several different strands in the piece worth thinking about (including the CCSS-as-a-stepping-stone strategy), but these two sentences speak volumes: “Still, (Common Core) supporters have struggled to counter the critics. They have had trouble even understanding the contours of the smoldering opposition.” As I told TNTP (see fifth paragraph),...

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A new survey from the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice delivers a thorough look at how the public views an array of school-choice issues. The results could surprise even some seasoned policymakers and wonks. After a useful literature review summarizing decades of opinion research on school choice, the author digs into the results of his nationally representative survey: First, respondents were asked whether they support or oppose various forms of school choice, and he found greater public enthusiasm for tax credits and savings accounts than for vouchers. Second, respondents were asked a series of questions to determine whether arguments favoring school choice were more persuasive if they invoked ideals of freedom, competition, or equality. Freedom prevailed.  Third, as is often the case, respondents felt that reducing class sizes would be quite effective in improving our education system relative to the other ideas offered. Among the reform ideas tested, support for “vouchers is in the middle of the pack, with smaller class sizes, technology, and accountability perceived as more efficacious and reducing teachers’ unions’ influence, merit pay, and longer school days as less efficacious.” This all would seem to indicate the need for school-choice supporters to go big with their proposals to reach as many kids as possible. Logically, support may dwindle to the extent the public feels a given policy does not affect them. In addition, policies should be designed to ensure options are broad-based, diverse, high quality,...

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Earlier this week, AFT president Randi Weingarten came out against the use of value-added measures in teacher evaluations, citing recent VAM shortcomings in D.C. and Pittsburgh and launching the catchy slogan, “VAM is a sham.” VAM certainly is not perfect. But as Dara Zeehandelaar reminds us in this week’s Education Gadfly Show, teachers decades ago were concerned about being capriciously fired by principals who didn’t like them, which in turn led to the movement for a more structured and quantifiable teacher-evaluation system. Does Randi want to go back to favoritism? Or simply no accountability at all?

In a fascinating exposé of the Common Core opposition movement, Politico’s Stephanie Simon describes how a sophisticated group of strategists took a grassroots campaign, mainly populated by “a handful of angry moms,” and is milking it for political gain. With everyone’s questionable motivations out in the open, Gadfly would like to see the debate return to whether the standards are right for kids.

In a speech at the Brookings Institution, Eric Cantor named school choice as the best hope for the poor to escape cyclical poverty. He took special aim at New York City’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, for planning a moratorium on charter school co-locations in the Big Apple, arguing that this could “devastate the growth of education opportunity in such a competitive real estate market.” Cantor went on to chastise President Obama for (again) refusing to fund the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, a successful initiative that...

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