Author Archives: Juliet Squire

An Expanded Federal Role in School Choice? No Thanks.

In yet another illustration of his selective embrace of conservative precepts, President-Elect Trump has proposed an expanded federal role in school choice. His nomination of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education, a long-time leader in the school choice movement, reaffirms this campaign commitment and foreshadows a difficult choice for Republicans in Congress.

Betsy DeVos

On the one hand, DeVos could use the purse strings of the U.S. Department of Education (USED) to significantly expand the school options available to families. On the other hand, a federal role in another area of education policy – traditionally (and constitutionally) reserved for the states – asks conservative school choice proponents to swallow a bitter pill. The new administration will need congressional Republicans to support its ambitions for school choice, but they should not sacrifice federalism on the altar of school choice.

No matter how carefully designed or who is at the helm, introducing a federal role in national school choice policies is a Pandora’s box. Some believe it would be possible to walk the line. Former Bellwether partner and current AEI resident fellow Andy Smarick recently suggested federal policymakers could use the existing federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) as a model for supporting school choice without a wanton expansion of the federal role.

The CSP is probably the best example of how USED has supported the growth of the charter sector and the closest proxy for a parallel federal investment in school choice. But it’s important not to romanticize it. Along with other high-profile federal grant programs (e.g. Race to the Top, Teacher Incentive Fund, Investing in Innovation), the CSP grant has allowed the federal government to weigh in on questions previously reserved for state and local policymakers.

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Charter Board Members Shape DC’s Charter Sector in Countless Small Ways

In a new report “Charter School Boards in the Nation’s Capital,” my co-author Allison Crean Davis and I provide a wealth of new information on charter boards in Washington, DC. But there’s one simple fact that merits further consideration: 62 different boards oversee the schools that enroll nearly half of the city’s children. Individually, each charter board makes consequential decisions for their school. But collectively, their decisions shape how the whole sector evolves.

School-level governance means charter boards can act quickly, approve the roll out (or roll back) of programs in response to feedback, and even address individual student or parent concerns. Decisions at this scale can be faster, more responsive, and less bureaucratic than those at the district or state level. In short, it is far easier to change the course of a speedboat than the Queen Mary (or the Titanic, depending on your optimism regarding district reform efforts).

Depending on a school’s particular challenges, one charter board may spend a great deal of time and energy debating whether and how to increase the salaries of their teachers. Another may focus on student recruitment and retention. A third may spend most of its time searching for their next school leader. The open responses to our survey showed board members wrestling with each of these issues and many more. In these myriad discussions and decisions, small organizations are responding and adapting to changing needs, problems, new information, and opportunities.

We note in our report a number of data points that suggest boards of low-quality charter schools are changing their practices. As we might expect, the boards of the highest-quality schools are most likely to evaluate their school leaders, they meet most often, and they have the most accurate knowledge of their school’s student population. However, the board practices of low-quality schools fall between those of high- and middling-quality schools rather than below them.

These data points present the possibility that board members of low-quality schools are responding to their own sense of urgency to improve school quality and/or pressure from the DC Public Charter School Board. (More research, especially analyzing board practices and school quality over time, would shed valuable light here.)

School-level governance means that the potential impact of a charter board’s actions are correspondingly smaller than the potential impact of an urban district’s comprehensive reform plan. However, school-level governance also enables each charter school to adapt more quickly, in a thousand small ways. Meanwhile, the education policy community watches to see whether these adaptations collectively fulfill the promise of a continuously improving charter sector. I’m optimistic.

You can read the full report here.

Charter Schools, Free Association, and Social Entrepreneurship

Last week, the Brookings Institution released its 2015 Education Choice and Competition Index. It is a valuable effort to identify and quantify the strength of various cities’ school choice environments. But it misses an aspect of school choice that I also found to be largely absent from the dialogue during National School Choice Week: the burgeoning growth of “mediating institutions.”

“Mediating institutions” is a clunky and amorphous term, but generally refers to entities that are formed by voluntary association and exist between government and the individual – that is, civil society. Examples include everything from families; to religious organizations such as churches, temples, and mosques; nonprofit organizations such as the YMCA or the Boy Scouts; charitable organizations such as the United Way or the Shriners; as well as the business community. One recent example of the power of these entities is the effort by the Local 370 plumbers union in Flint, Michigan to address the disastrous water quality crisis.

Within K-12 education, it seems to me that any study of school choice environments should include an analysis of civil society and the role it plays in enabling the delivery of high-quality public education. My hypothesis is that cities with similar degrees of choice-friendly policies and politics can have different outcomes, depending on the civil society organizations that have developed to support the school choice sector.

These organizations can be schools themselves. Charter schools are important intermediaries between individuals (parents who select schools on behalf of their children) and the government (which funds education for the public good).

But, importantly, mediating institutions can also be the numerous entities that have emerged to fill gaps in the charter school sector such as facilities, talent, enrollment, community engagement, and advocacy. These are gaps that a) the government does not fill and b) no one individual can fill alone. Today, dozens if not hundreds of these civil society organizations support the function and growth of high-quality options for kids.

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Rural Education is for Everyone

Rural education wasn’t on my radar until I started to manage the Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho (ROCI), a joint initiative between Bellwether, Paul Hill, and the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation. Like many others working in education policy and reform, my attention had been focused on urban America.

Over the past two and a half years, ROCI has released 19 reports on various issues related to rural education—from economic development to talent pipelines to funding formulas. Here’s some of what I have learned about why rural education is important to our field and our future:

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Improving Charter School Quality in Michigan: Measure Twice, Cut Once

Michigan has a problem with charter school authorizing. In February, Education Trust Midwest (ETM) released a report, Accountability for All, on Michigan’s challenges in quality charter school authorizing. Many of the issues ETM identifies showed up again in the report released by the Coalition for the Future of Detroit School Children a couple of weeks ago. Some closely resemble those in Ohio, which my colleagues and I analyzed late last year.

The bottom line is that authorizers in both states approve too many schools with low chances of success and allow too many poorly performing schools to persist.

ETM’s Accountability for All includes a number of insights about authorizer quality in Michigan. The report is the culmination of two years of collecting and analyzing data and provides important transparency about the performance of various authorizers’ school portfolios and how authorizers make key decisions:

  • Which authorizers only approve new charter schools that are likely to succeed?
  • Which authorizers have built portfolios that offer kids good or better school options?
  • And which authorizers continue to authorize schools that have consistently failed to improve?

The result of this analysis is an A-F authorizer scorecard for 16 of 40 authorizers in the state. The 16 authorizers oversee charter schools that educate about 96 percent of charter school students in the state. (The other authorizers lacked the necessary data to be included, because the schools they oversee are either too new or too small to be counted in state accountability systems.) Here’s the breakdown:

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This distribution of authorizers aligns with widespread concern in Michigan that the charter sector has not outperformed district-operated schools. Accountability for All puts significant new data on the table and gives Michigan policymakers and practitioners a problem to solve.

But here’s where I get nervous. The authorizing problem is important, but if I’ve learned anything about charter schools it’s that authorizers are just one piece of a very large and very complex puzzle.

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