June 18, 2019

To Address Their Teacher Pension Problems, States Need to Better Understand West Virginia’s History of Reform

Despite its relatively small size, the state of West Virginia has had a significant influence on national politics. Take for example West Virginia’s educators, whose two-week strike in 2018 sparked similar protests across the country.

Yet, stagnant salaries are not the only financial problem facing teachers and states: there is a growing teacher pension crisis.

Here again, West Virginia is at the center of the debate. The state reformed its pension plan in the early 1990s, but by 2005, reverted back to the statewide pension system. The West Virginia experiment is now frequently cited as a cautionary tale when other states attempt to refashion their teacher retirement systems. Critics argue that pension reform simply doesn’t work.

However, that reading of West Virginia’s pension reform is incomplete and based on commonly held myths about pensions and alternative retirement plans. Continue reading


June 12, 2019

Media: “West Virginia shows states how not to reform teacher pensions” in GOVERNING magazine

I have an opinion piece out today in GOVERNING magazine. Despite the insistence that West Virginia’s pension experience proves reform can’t work, a closer analysis actually reveals how the state’s missteps can be instructive for other states looking to address their own teacher pension problems:

…the limited success of the state’s DC plan wasn’t the result of an innate shortcoming of DC plans in general. Rather, the state’s design choices undermined the ability of the plan to provide a sufficient benefit to most teachers. Indeed, both plans were designed in such a way that at least 40 percent of teachers never qualified for any retirement benefits from the state at all.

Read the full op-ed here. And check out our new report on teacher pension reform in West Virginia here.


June 7, 2019

What This Washington Post Opinion Piece Got Wrong on Charter Schools

Over the weekend, the Washington Post Outlook section ran a frustrating cover story on charter schools that offered a narrow and biased picture of the charter sector and perpetuated a number of misconceptions.

Jack Schneider’s “School’s out: Charters were supposed to save public education. Why are Americans turning against them?” argues that the charter sector as a whole isn’t living up to its promises, leading public support for the schools to shrink. Schneider is correct that the charter school hasn’t lived up to all of its most enthusiastic boosters’ promises, but his piece flatly misrepresents data about charter quality. For example, Schneider writes that “average charter performance is roughly equivalent to that of traditional public schools.” This is simply inaccurate, as my colleagues indicated in a recent analysis of charter data and research (slide 37 here). The full body of currently available, high-quality research finds that charters outperform traditional public schools on average, with especially positive effects for historically underserved student groups (a recent Post editorial acknowledged this as well).

slide from Bellwether's "State of the Charter Sector" resource, summarizing research on charter sector performance

To be clear, research also shows that charter performance varies widely across schools, cities, and states — and too many schools are low-performing. Yet Schneider cherry picks examples that illustrate low points in the sector. He cites Ohio, whose performance struggles — and the poorly designed policies that led to them — Bellwether has previously written about. He also (inexplicably, given where his piece ran) overlooks Washington, D.C., where charters not only significantly outperform comparable district-run schools, but have also helped spur improvement systemwide. Over the past decade, public schools in D.C. (including both charters and DC Public Schools, DCPS) have improved twice as fast as those in any other state in the country, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). DCPS was the nation’s fastest growing district in 4th grade math and among the fastest in 4th grade reading and 8th grade math. These gains can be partially attributed to the city’s changing demographics, but are also the result of reforms within DCPS — which the growth of charters created the political will to implement. Over the past decade, Washington, DC has also increased the number of high-performing charter schools while systematically slashing the number of students in the lowest-performing charter schools. When I served on the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board from 2009-2017, I had the chance to observe these exciting changes firsthand, so it was particularly disappointing to see a major feature in our city’s paper overlook them.

It’s frustrating that this biased and narrow picture drew prime real estate in one of the nation’s leading papers, because the charter sector does have real weaknesses and areas for improvement that would benefit from thoughtful dialogue. For example, as Schneider notes, transportation issues and lack of good information can prevent many families from accessing high-quality schools. In cities with high concentrations of charters, such as Washington, D.C. and New Orleans, there is a real need to better support parents in navigating what can feel like a very fragmented system. And despite progress in closing down low-performing charter schools, too many remain in operation. Schneider could have referenced the real work charter leaders are undertaking to address these lingering challenges (more on this in slide 112 of our deck).

Schneider is correct that public support for charters has waned in recent years, due in part to some of the challenges he references, but also because of orchestrated political opposition from established interests threatened by charter school growth. Given the increasingly polarized political environment around charter schools, the need for nuanced, balanced, and data-informed analysis and dialogue about them is greater than ever. Bellwether’s recent report on the state of the charter sector, and our past work on charter schools more broadly, seeks to provide that kind of analysis. Unfortunately, Schneider’s piece falls short on that score.


June 5, 2019

Moving Towards Sustainability: Q&A with Charles King of Kansas City Teacher Residency

Teacher residencies, in which prospective teachers complete a classroom apprenticeship in addition to master’s-level coursework, have gained a great deal of attention as a promising pathway to teaching. Today, most teacher residencies rely significantly on philanthropic dollars, and often face post-startup financial sustainability challenges.

When faced with such sustainability challenges, organizations often make significant — and uncomfortable — programmatic decisions, like eliminating services or reducing cohort size. This spring, my colleagues Gwen Baker, Evan Coughenour, and I worked in collaboration with Charles King, executive director of Kansas City Teacher Residency (KCTR), on this exact sustainability challenge. KCTR was launched in 2016 by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation with a mission to recruit, develop, place, and retain mission-oriented individuals who want to make a deep commitment to working in high-need urban schools in the Kansas City area.

photograph of Charles King, founder and executive director of the Kansas City Teacher Residency

Our work with Charles and the KCTR team led to a redesign of KCTR’s program model, including a $4.6M (26%) reduction in fundraising needs. The new program strategies include strengthening partnerships, optimizing costs, exploring new revenue streams, and slowing the growth to scale.

After releasing a case study on KCTR’s path towards sustainability, Charles spoke with me about the strategic planning effort, his learnings, and his recommendations for others interested in supporting educators.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Over the last 3 years, KCTR has built a strong reputation in Kansas City. What factors have led KCTR’s success? Continue reading


May 30, 2019

Media: “High-quality education behind bars can reduce recidivism” in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser

I have an opinion piece out today in the print and online editions of Hawaii’s paper, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser (note that the online version is behind a paywall). Hawaii senator Brian Schatz is the author of a bill that would expand Pell Grant access for people in prison. I argue that more access is essential, but that more without better isn’t enough:

The research is clear that education during incarceration reduces recidivism and improves outcomes. These programs save money and make everyone safer. Having more and better programs should be a no-brainer. But since there are so many types of programs, and the people who participate in these programs didn’t get to choose their college, it’s essential that we also think about quality and equity: Is everyone getting access to a high-quality program that meets their needs?

Read the full op-ed here. And check out some of our other work on education opportunity and quality behind bars.