Category Archives: State Education Policy

New Bellwether Analysis on Michigan Education Provides Facts for DeVos Debate

When President Donald Trump nominated Betsy DeVos to serve as his Secretary of Education, she was not well known on a national scale: her behind-the-scenes advocacy and philanthropic work has concentrated on her home state of Michigan. But DeVos’ nomination put a national spotlight on education in Michigan, and her critics and boosters alike have been making a variety of claims about Michigan that are confusing and contradictory.

Slide1To address this, Bellwether just released a fact base on education in Michigan to inform the conversation about DeVos’ work there and what it might mean for the Department of Education if she is confirmed.

Our slide deck report addresses a number of key questions: How are Michigan students performing, and what do achievement gaps look like for low-income students and students of color? Do charter schools in Michigan produce better results than district-run public schools, and if so, by how much? Why does Michigan have so many charter schools operated by for-profit companies?

Among the things we found:

  • Michigan typically ranks in the lowest third of states in terms of student proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and state assessment results show wide achievement gaps by racial/ethnic group and income level.
  • Educational authority in Michigan is highly decentralized, with multiple state governing entities and over 40 charter school authorizers.
  • About 150,000 Michigan students attend public charter schools, making up 10 percent of the student population.
  • Another 200,000 students, or 13 percent, take advantage of inter-district choice options to attend schools outside of their home district.
  • On average, students attending charter schools learn more than comparable students attending district-run schools. However, producing greater learning gains compared to schools serving similar students is a low bar because most Michigan charters are in Detroit, one of the lowest-performing large, urban school districts in the country.
  • Repeated reform efforts to improve Detroit Public Schools (DPS) have not produced academic improvements for students or solved the ongoing financial crisis in the school district. A new law reinstates local control over DPS, limits charter school expansion to nationally accredited authorizers, and creates an A-F accountability system for both charter schools and traditional public schools.

Through data analysis and a deeper dive into the context of the Michigan education landscape, we hope to inform the ongoing debate about DeVos and give new insight into education in Michigan. The state has been a laboratory for school choice and educational reform efforts, and demands a more complete context and deeper analysis than sound bytes can provide. Read the full report here and let us know what you think.

What’s Really Driving Leadership Turnover in Education?

Image by Alachua County via Flickr

Image by Alachua County via Flickr

When DC Mayor Muriel Bowser recently announced she was nominating Oakland, CA Superintendent Antwan Wilson to succeed Kaya Henderson as DC Public Schools’ Chancellor (after an anxious public search), the San Francisco Chronicle responded with a scathing op-ed accusing Wilson of disloyalty and self-serving ambition. The Chronicle also took a few shots at San Francisco’s former superintendent Richard Carranza, now working in Houston, and generally railed against urban superintendents who “come in, do enough to raise hopes, then move on to a higher paying job.”

High turnover in educational leadership is alarming, but to paraphrase the advice columnist Dan Savage, if you have a long string of dramatic, failed relationships, the common denominator is you. I’m not just picking on the Bay Area — the average urban superintendent stays in his or her role just 3.2 years, and state education chiefs turn over at an even faster rate. These dismal numbers are likely not the sole product of individual ambition, but it remains unclear what actually drives this churn. When experienced, qualified school system leaders across the country leave their posts much earlier than expected, should we blame the individuals, or take a closer look at the jobs?

What is clear is that state and district executive leadership roles have become more challenging in recent years. Federal education policies put myriad new responsibilities and choices in the hands of state and district central offices to measure teacher and school performance, increase student achievement, and close achievement gaps for disadvantaged  groups of students. For example, a new publication on teacher evaluation by my colleagues Kaitlin Pennington and Sara Mead uncovers a minefield of choices facing state and district leaders — and that is just one policy area out of many. Leaders are figuring out these new responsibilities in an increasingly polarized and politicized educational environment.

Holding our school systems and their leaders accountable for providing an excellent education to every student is absolutely the right thing to do, but we also should recognize that educational bureaucracies were not designed to be agile performance managers orchestrating school turnarounds. They were mostly built to disburse various funding streams down to schools, and collect documentation that the conditions of that funding and other legislative mandates have been met. Those compliance responsibilities remain in place even as new performance goals are added, and on top of that, many agency budgets are being slashed by their state legislatures. Untangling the messes of red tape, budgetary crises, and misaligned priorities takes time and support that most superintendents are not afforded by their school boards or by their communities.

Even the best leaders can be hamstrung by the political, legal, and bureaucratic contexts in which they operate. Instead of looking for more selfless miracle workers to lead dysfunctional systems, envision a school system where great leaders (or maybe good-enough leaders!) could do their best work. How would it be organized? How would it be accountable to the community and work in the best interests of students? What are the conditions that enable that kind of school system to exist and succeed? I don’t have all the answers, but legislators, governors, mayors, and school boards will need to think bigger to disrupt the current cycle of leadership churn, and these big questions are one place to start.

Finding and Financing Facilities Remains a Barrier for Idaho Charter Schools

Finding and financing school facilities continues to be a major barrier for charter schools. Many states have created programs to help ease the burden, including loan programs, per-pupil facilities allocations, and provisions to help charters access unused facilities.

But no state has fully equalized facilities access for charter schools. Idaho is no exception.

Screen Shot 2016-12-09 at 4.45.23 PMIn a new report, Juliet Squire and I present the results of a survey of Idaho’s charter school leaders. We asked charter leaders about their facilities-related expenditures, and what amenities (like auditoriums, gyms, and libraries) their facilities have. We then collected data points like the square footage and seat capacity of schools’ current facilities.

These data enabled us to quantify the stark discrepancy in access to state and local facilities funding sources between district and charter schools. On average, districts have access to approximately $1,445 per pupil of state and local funding. Charter schools get less than one-quarter this amount: $347.

Organizations like Building Hope and foundations like the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation (a Bellwether client) have helped close this gap for some charter schools. Others have been able to access tax-exempt bonds through the Idaho Housing and Finance Association. And the state has recently enacted a debt reserve fund and a small per-pupil facilities allocation (about $335 this year). Even so, most charter schools rely heavily on their per-pupil funds to cover facilities-related expenses.

The data from our survey suggest that, despite these avenues for facilities funding, accessing financing remains a major barrier to securing an adequate facility. Moreover, charter leaders struggle to find property suitable for their school, and often have to make significant tradeoffs — like forgoing a gymnasium or using cheaper materials to build. When facilities are inadequate, charter leaders indicate that it is difficult to provide the educational programming they envision for their students.

But perhaps the most telling finding is that, despite the financial constraints they face, charter leaders are doing extraordinary work securing facilities for their schools. In fact, they are able to build schools at a fraction of what traditional school districts spend. Continue reading

Election Reflections

Plenty is being said about what the presidential election means and what it says about America’s values. At Bellwether, we deeply value inclusion, equity, and tolerance alongside other democratic values, including liberty and freedom. For us, the election did not change our deep commitment to these values, which is as strong today as it was prior to Election Day.

Something else that hasn’t changed since November 8th? Across America, children are getting up each morning and going to school. They’re still counting on their schools to help them learn and cultivate the knowledge and skills they need to navigate adulthood and lead a happy, fulfilled life full of choices and opportunities. Some of their schools go above and beyond in delivering on this promise. Too many others fall far short especially for students in underserved communities. Addressing these deep and persistent inequities is at the core of what we do at Bellwether.

The election matters, of course, but leaders at the state and local level are still rolling up their sleeves and ready to continue doing the challenging work of expanding education equity. They’re trying to sort out the opportunities and challenges the Every Student Succeeds Act creates and continuing or launching their own initiatives to improve schooling.

Helping them is a primary reason Bellwether exists. And students need our support now more than ever. That’s why we’re staying focused on continuing our work with and alongside state and local organizations and agencies on the ground working for kids. Across our strategy, talent, and policy teams, we offer more than 50 professionals committed to the vision of a world in which race and income are no longer predictors of life outcomes for students. We all work towards an American education system that affords every individual the opportunity to determine their own path and to lead a productive and fulfilling life.

If your work aligns with these values and we can support what you do, we’d like to hear from you. Please contact us.

Donald Trump, Public Education, and the Rise of the (New) New Federalists

donald-trump-1818950_1280Many of you might have woken up on November 9 (and perhaps each day thereafter) thinking to yourself “but Donald Trump can’t actually do that, can he?” As far as education goes, the answer is mostly “no, he can’t.” The federal executive branch cannot make binding education policy: it can only offer states funds in exchange for adopting preferred policies.

This is because thankfully there are structural limitations to the president’s power; in high school social studies we called them “checks and balances” and probably thought of them as quaint academic concepts. But these checks and balances — especially the intentional friction between the states and the federal government — will play a big role in education policymaking over the next four years.

Federalism is the name for the concept that the U.S. Constitution grants certain limited powers to the federal government and that all other powers are preserved by the states. Despite the possibly misleading name, it is the philosophy that constrains federal power and it is a fundamental principle of American government. And one of the most visible exercises of that state power is public education. (Others that will likely be very important over the next four years include policing and health care.) Continue reading