Category Archives: School Choice

Democratic Candidates are Missing a Chance to Lead on Charter Schools

When asked about charter schools at last week’s Democratic debate in South Carolina, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg hedged, saying he was “not sure they’re appropriate every place.” Other primary candidates dodged the question altogether, pivoting quickly to talking points on teacher pay, school funding, and quality child care. Why are Democratic candidates so reticent to engage on the question of charter schooling? Charter schools are a contentious issue within the Democratic Party to be sure, but by avoiding the issue, candidates are missing an opportunity to demonstrate the kind of leadership the Democratic Party needs. 

Looking at polling data, it’s clear that candidates who stake out positions flatly in favor of or against charter schools are bound to alienate a core Democratic constituency. Democratic candidates don’t want to upset teachers or their unions, which are powerful Democratic interest groups that often oppose charter schools. Polling among teachers supports candidates’ concerns: EdChoice’s 2019 Schooling in America Survey poll found that a majority (55%) of public school teachers support charter schools; however, their margin of support was lower than any other subgroup detailed in the poll results. The 2019 Education Next Poll found that 42% of teachers supported charter schools overall, but only 28% of union-member public school teachers, compared to 50% of non-union public school teachers. And in “Voices from the Classroom 2020,” Educators for Excellence found only 35% support for charter schools among public school teachers. In turn, multiple candidates have endorsed policies that would seriously restrict the growth of the charter sector, including eliminating the federal Charter School Program, banning for-profit charter schools, and supporting proposals to make school districts the only entities that can authorize charter schools.

No candidate has gone so far as to oppose charter schools altogether, however, likely because charter school support is particularly strong within African American and Hispanic/Latinx communities, which are disproportionately served by poorly performing schools, often in segregated neighborhoods, making school choice a powerful issue. Both the EdChoice and Education Next polls found majority support for charter schools among these groups. In fact, just days before the South Carolina primary, where black voters make up the majority of Democratic primary voters, both Senator Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden met with the Powerful Parent Network, a group that supports school choice and garnered attention last November for confronting Warren at a campaign event in Atlanta.

How Democrats navigate the issue also depends on constituencies in various states. Today, Super Tuesday, candidates must court votes from states where public opinion on charter schools varies widely. Across the thirteen states with primaries taking place tonight, we found relevant 2019-20 polling data on charter schools in four of them. Support ranges from just 44% in Tennessee to as high as 76% in North Carolina.

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A Q&A With Five Parents of Color on What Matters When Choosing a School

This post is part of a series of interviews conducted for our Eight Cities project. Read all related posts here.

Policy conversations around school choice often center on “quality,” defined narrowly by academic measures found on school report cards. But families aren’t always drawn to a school because it’s effective at producing a test score or highly rated on a school performance tool. And for parents of color, there can be tough tradeoffs to make in any school decision.

In advance of the 2020 relaunch of our Eight Cities project, we spoke with nearly a dozen parents of color to understand their decisions, frustrations, and victories. We’ve compiled some of their responses here to provide perspectives on what motivates parents when evaluating multiple school options.

These conversations reveal some of the often unspoken factors that drive school choice. The truth is this process is complicated, and policymakers hoping to create more high-quality seats in cities across the country need to better understand what parents value alongside strong academics and student achievement outcomes.

These quotes have been edited for clarity and condensed.

Miguelina Zapata, a parent leader with D.C. Parents Amplifying Voices in Education (PAVE), describes why a non-traditional school model was important for her and her children:

“Two of my three children are at [a Montessori charter school] here in D.C. I knew my older daughter wouldn’t thrive in a regular school where she would have to sit down for 30 minutes at a time. My daughter is very active and has always been more advanced than other kids her age. I like the Montessori model because they let kids go at their own pace with their own materials depending on what they want to do. She couldn’t get that kind of freedom in a regular school.

I learned about local Montessori schools at the DC bilingual education fair and the annual public school fair and found [two schools] I really liked. But the waitlist numbers were so high for both schools, there was no way we were going to get in. So I applied through the lottery and found my current school.” Continue reading

“I Didn’t Realize How Much Work It Takes to Find a School for Your Child”: Q&A With Shaniola Arowolaju of Washington, D.C

This post is part of a series of interviews conducted for our Eight Cities project. Read all related posts here.

Families with children in the Washington, DC school system are currently on the edge of their seats: Open enrollment through the MySchoolDC lottery closed earlier this month, and results will be released in late March.

As discussed in our Eight Cities profile of D.C., one of the most unique features of D.C.’s education system is its emphasis on parent choice, within the traditional public school system (DC Public Schools, or DCPS) and the city’s large charter school sector.

Shaniola Arowolaju, a D.C. native with three children enrolled in a charter school*, is a parent leader with D.C. Parents Amplifying Voices in Education (PAVE). In this conversation, she talks about the barriers that she and other parents face when choosing a school and offers advice for parents and district leaders to make the enrollment and choice system more equitable for D.C.’s most vulnerable students.

quote card from DC parent Shaniola Arowolaju: I’d suggest that general resources about school choice and quality are placed inside each and every school, recreational center, and library. I believe that we need to give parents whatever resources they need — they shouldn’t have to fight for them.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You grew up in the District and attended public schools here. Can you talk more about the process of finding a school that was the right fit for you?

When I was in school, you had to go to your neighborhood school. If you wanted to go school outside of those boundaries, then you’d have to get special permission and request a change. As a student, I attended my neighborhood elementary and middle schools that were no further than a short bus ride. When I got to high school, I requested and received special permission from the district to attend another high school which had a legal services academy and a marching band. It was also located on the other side of town. So I had some choice as a student, but it required a long commute. Continue reading

What Do Toxic Charter School Politics Mean for Newark Students?

A few weeks ago, as National School Choice Week came to a close, Bellwether Co-founder and Partner Andy Rotherham wrote in the Hill about the toxic state of politics around charter schools, and the blind spots of both charter opponents and advocates: 

Any effort to curtail charter schooling must deal forthrightly with how that would limit access to good schools for families that historically have been denied good educational options. Proposals to expand charters must ensure that charters are partners in meeting all the educational challenges in different communities. The current national debate lets everyone off the hook on the hard questions. 

Too often in the debates over charter schools, nuanced points about how to best create and sustain high-quality schools get buried by adversarial talking points from charter opponents and supporters. 

Right now, there’s no better place to watch those frustrating debates in action than Newark, NJ. Last month, in a surprisingly aggressive move against the city’s charter sector, Superintendent Roger Léon urged the state to halt to charter school expansion and close four charter schools up for renewal, citing the budgetary impact of charter schools on the district, mediocre test results, and low enrollment of English learners and students with disabilities at some of the schools up for renewal.  

school bus driving down the street in Newark, NJ

Via flickr user Paul Sableman: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pasa/13682552433

Charter parents, schools, and advocates struck back, with official public statements and refutations of Léon’s claims. At the same time, shady anonymous flyers attacking Léon sprang up across the city, warning parents “your school could be next!” 

As this latest district-versus-charter skirmish played out, a lot got lost in the noise.  Continue reading

Four Questions Denver Public Schools Should Ask About Their SPF

Denver Public Schools (DPS) has been held up as an urban school district success story, due to a strategy focused on holding a system of diverse, autonomous schools to high performance standards and enabling family choice across the city. The district’s school performance framework (SPF) has long been part of that story, serving as the means by which the central office managed its array of schools and the primary tool for families to understand and compare quality across schools.

Denver, CO skyline

Photo of Denver skyline via Shutterstock

But over time, criticisms of the SPF have grown among community stakeholders and school leaders. Just two weeks ago, a community advisory committee voted to replace the local SPF’s academic components with a rating system created by the state. 

Common criticisms are that the current tool is overly complex, lacks transparency, and costs too much to manage. There is also concern that the SPF as it exists today over-emphasizes test-driven metrics. DPS reportedly invests $900,000 annually in operating its current SPF, a hefty price tag for a troubled system, whereas other Colorado districts use the state’s school rating system. 

While the recent vote is not the end of the process and the committee is still considering ways to modify or adapt the state system, the signal is clear: there’s desire for a top-to-bottom SPF rebuild, not just surface-level revisions. What does this mean, and when the elected school board votes on the SPF later in the spring, what should it consider?

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