Category Archives: Politics of Education

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.

Media: “To reform education, Kentucky must focus on rural, impoverished schools” in the Louisville Courier Journal

We have an op-ed in today’s print and online editions of the Louisville Courier Journal about overlooked rural communities in Kentucky:

One-third of Kentucky’s student population, or almost 200,000 students, live in rural areas. In fact, half of Kentucky’s counties are rural, but you wouldn’t know this from the conversations about education in the media, among funders or between state policymakers.

Despite the concentration of rural students in Kentucky, education reform efforts continue to focus almost exclusively on two of the largest school districts in the state: Jefferson and Fayette counties. On top of that, the state’s existing reforms strategies don’t always reach rural communities or address their primary concerns.

Read our full op-ed here, and check out Bellwether’s new resource, “Education in the American South,” for more context.

65 Years Too Late: Education in the American South After Brown v. Board

65 years after the landmark Supreme Court ruling of Brown v. Board of Education, over 300 school districts remain under court desegregation orders, 88 percent of which are in the South. Alabama’s constitution still contains racist language about education, and around the U.S., schools and district attendance zones mirror the housing segregation in our communities. Brown v. Board’s anniversary earlier this month reminds us that the legacy of discriminatory in education, housing, and other social policies continues to challenge access and opportunity for a significant proportion of our students.

A new Bellwether analysis released last week illuminates challenges the American South continues to face and points to opportunities to better serve its students. In our slide deck, we examine education in the American South through regional and education trends and historical context. To highlight Southern states’ role in national education reform, we also describe key initiatives and policies that began in the South and expanded to the rest of the country. (Our definition of the South includes 15 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.)

The South is home to many promising solutions to help better serve minority and low-income students. For example, in charter schools in Texas, Florida, and New Orleans, African American and Hispanic students have demonstrated better performance in comparison to district-managed schools. In higher education, 90 of the remaining 102 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are located in the South. HBCUs produce 24 percent of black STEM graduates and confer almost 35 percent of all bachelor’s degrees earned by black graduates in astronomy, biology, chemistry, math, and physics. Local investments have contributed to this progress, but national funding and philanthropy don’t always keep up with highest need areas in the South.

With 56 percent of all black students in the U.S. living in the South, as well as substantial portions of the nation’s English language learner and migrant student populations, funders, policymakers, and school leaders must acknowledge the persistence of segregation in the South and the failure to sufficiently support our students. We can’t wait another 65 years.

Read our comprehensive slide deck, “Education in the American South,” here and follow the conversation on Twitter at #EduSouth.

Learning from a Missed Opportunity in Massachusetts

If current predictions hold, several states will either set new or stand by current limits on charter school growth and expansion. These limits, called charter school caps, place a ceiling on the number of charter schools or students those schools can enroll. In 2016, Massachusetts did the same thing: Voters rejected Ballot Question 2, which would have raised the cap on charter schools in the state. But research released just last week suggests that Massachusetts’ voters made a mistake. The states currently considering similar legislation should pay attention.

In the study I’m referencing, authors Sarah Cohodes, Elizabeth Setren, and Christopher R. Walters examined the effect of a policy that allowed effective charter schools in Boston to replicate their school models at new locations. They found that these new schools produced large achievement gains that were on par with those of their parent campuses. What’s more, the average effectiveness of charter middle schools in the city increased after the policy reform.

This evidence could, perhaps, be dismissed if the sector saw only a marginal increase in the number of schools; that is, if there were only a few additional charter schools that pulled this off. But that’s not the case: Boston’s charter sector produced these results despite a doubling of the charter market share in the city.

This analysis would be a big deal for any charter sector, but it is particularly meaningful for Boston. As Bellwether found in a recent analysis of the charter sector, Boston has the highest performing urban charter sector in the country. The average child who attended Boston charter schools benefited from basically a full year of additional learning compared to students in traditional public schools: 170 additional days of learning in reading and 233 days of learning in math. And the research suggests that Boston charter schools have strong, positive effects on the learning outcomes of students with disabilities and English-language learners, as well. The implication here is that not only did Boston’s charter schools replicate their impact, they replicated some of the most effective charter schools we’ve ever seen, to the benefit of the thousands of students in Boston who are on charter school waitlists.

The states that are poised to double down on charter caps — such as New York, Maine, and California — shouldn’t make the same mistake as Massachusetts did in 2016. New York, in particular, is at risk here: In our analysis earlier this year, we examined the existing evidence on New York and New York City and found that there, too, charters are more effective than traditional public schools. By committing to the cap, the state is refusing thousands of students the opportunity to attend high-quality schools.

To be sure, there are reasons to question the growth of a charter sector other than whether charters can replicate effectiveness across schools. Charter critics cite, for example, concerns about the effect of charter sector growth on traditional public school enrollment. But, particularly during National Charter Schools Week, states should be skeptical of arguments used to support charter school caps that claim charter schools cannot be replicated effectively.

Media: “Kamala Harris’s Flawed Proposal to Help Teachers Could Make Problem Worse” in The Hill

Last month, Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) introduced a plan for a federal-state partnership to boost teacher salaries. In a new op-ed for The Hill, I write that Harris’ proposal relies on flawed data on teacher pay and ignores the real factors holding teacher salaries back — namely, the rapidly rising costs of teacher benefits like pensions and health care:

Of course, teachers can’t use their health care or pension plans to pay their mortgage or buy groceries, but total compensation is still the only apples-to-apples way to analyze across sectors — especially because deferred compensation through pensions is such a fundamental aspect of teacher compensation today.

Failing to accurately account for pensions and health care obscures the extent to which these costs are crowding out resources for teacher pay. To give one example from Sen. Harris’s home state, in Los Angeles, where teachers recently went on strike, spending on teacher salaries increased 24 percent over the past decade, whereas health care and pensions increased 138 percent. Overall compensation is rising even if teachers don’t see it in their paychecks or the supports they receive in their classrooms.

While Harris’ proposal is well-meaning, it would not address the root causes for why teacher salaries have been flat for so long. Without more meaningful attempts to control benefit costs, teachers are likely to see a growing disconnect between their take-home pay and their total compensation package.