Category Archives: School Choice

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.

Misinformation About California’s Special Education Systems and Enrollment Trends Won’t Help the Fiscal Crisis

Many California school districts are in financial trouble. Teacher pensions consume an increasing share of K-12 spending, and inflexible collective bargaining agreements and declining enrollments stretch district budgets.

In this strained financial environment, some of the complexity of California’s school finance system is lost, leading to simplified analyses and incomplete solutions. Addressing the financial shortfall requires a comprehensive understanding of the many different ways funding works in the state.

cover of Bellwether report cover of Bellwether report

 

 

 

 

 

 

To that end, we released new issue briefs yesterday that provide needed context and clarity on important issues in the state: special education financing and school enrollment trends and facilities. These issues have become part of the financial policy debate, but there are misunderstandings that unnecessarily fan the flames of tension between traditional and charter schools. For example, misleading analyses of enrollment trends and their impact on district finances make it more difficult to accurately assess facilities needs for districts and charter schools. And, since charter schools often enroll fewer students with disabilities, many can mistakenly believe that they are not contributing their share to special education.

But this isn’t quite right. Our hope is that a sober examination of these systems will point to reforms that can help schools of all types better serve students.

Continue reading

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.

Should Indianapolis Be Our Ninth City?

While we were doing research for our Eight Cities project, I was frequently asked which cities we’d be including. To take the temperature of the sector, I’d turn the question into a nerdy parlor game and ask people to guess which cities they thought made the list.

Indianapolis frequently came up, but it’s not one of our eight cities. Now I’m starting to have second thoughts. Here’s why.

The criteria for being one of the eight cities in our publication was that there was a strategy put in place based on the beliefs and pillars below — and saltatory gains in achievement and reductions in gaps.

Eight Cities Beliefs and Strategic PillarsIndianapolis scores high on the first criterion. They have a school performance framework, unified enrollment system, influential quarterback organization, broad (but not universal) citywide school choice, and a high-quality authorizer.

On the academic front, things are a bit more complicated.

Indianapolis Public Schools’ (IPS) scores on the state’s iStep test have declined from 29 percent in 2014 to 23 percent in 2018. This isn’t good news for the state’s largest school district, but the city’s families are fortunate to be able to choose one of the city’s 35 charter or 20 Innovation Schools (IPS schools with charter-like autonomies).

Indy’s charter school sector, which enrolls 28 percent of students, has performed well for years in large part because the Indianapolis Mayor’s Office is an effective authorizer. For instance, in 2017, the Indianapolis Mayor’s Office had “the greatest percentage of A and B schools within their portfolio, and the lowest percentage of D and F schools” compared to other authorizers in the state. Continue reading

The Traditional Public and Charter School Sectors Aren’t as Separate as You Might Think

The recent strike by the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), which ended after negotiations around teacher pay and class sizes, is but the latest in a long list of tensions between traditional public and charter schools. UTLA expressed opposition to the city’s growing charter sector, so the school board has agreed to put forward a non-binding resolution calling on the state of California to cap the growth of charter schools in the district while the state studies policy changes. This strike, in part, highlights the fact that charter schools compete for students and resources, which can cause pain for traditional public schools.

While it often seems that charter schools and traditional public schools are adversaries, in many places the two sectors are not as separate as one might think. Nationwide, nearly 90 percent of charter school authorizers (the legal entities that grant charters and oversee charter schools) are actually school districts themselves, according to data requested from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA). This means that school districts around the country are often the ones making decisions about when charter schools open and close and what expectations they have to meet.

Source: National Association of Charter School Authorizers

Source: National Association of Charter School Authorizers

However, NACSA’s data also show that school districts only authorize roughly 51 percent of all charter schools, as they tend to oversee fewer schools than other types of authorizers. As we show in our new publication, “The State of the Charter Sector,” the average school district authorizes only about four schools. Meanwhile, independent chartering boards (statewide bodies set up for the purpose of granting charters and overseeing charter schools) authorize an average of 51 schools, and state education agencies, typically housed in state departments of education, authorize an average of more than 87 schools.

This unequal distribution of authorizers and authorized schools is due in part to the fact that independent chartering boards and state education agencies are both statewide entities, overseeing a much larger number of students and schools than a single district. It is also affected by the structure of state charter school laws. While 44 states allow charter schools, only 23 states allow charter applicants to apply directly to non-district authorizers. In the other 21 states, applicants must apply to school districts for authorization of their charter. However, in many states, the denial of a charter school application by a school district may then be appealed to a non-district authorizer.

In some places, like in Los Angeles, competition for enrollment and resources is pitting school districts against a growing number of charter schools. But in many more places, charter schools are being overseen by local districts and comprise a much smaller share of overall district enrollment. This means that traditional public and charter schools often need to function as one cohesive sector. In these cases, school districts should ensure they are using strong authorizing practices, such as the list of “essential practices” proposed by NACSA.

Our new slide deck, “The State of the Charter Sector,” provides more of the latest available information on charter schools across the country and analyses of the challenges that charter schools face.