Category Archives: School Choice

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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“I’m So Thankful I Had a Choice”: Q&A With LaVonia Abavana on Camden Schools

When we launched Eight Cities in 2018, a multimedia storytelling website which became our most popular project of the year, readers loved the close look at system leaders who oversaw dramatic changes in their districts. But we also heard a desire for more local voices — including parents, principals, and educators — to better understand how system-wide reforms were experienced by those on the ground. This conversation with Camden parent LaVonia Abavana launches a series that explores school reform and choice from a variety of perspectives in advance of the 2020 relaunch of Eight Cities.

When the state of New Jersey took control of Camden Public Schools in 2013, Camden community members had plenty of reasons to be skeptical given the district’s long history of corruption and financial and academic struggles. As our profile of Camden in EightCities.org explains, state control also introduced Renaissance Schools, a model where nonprofit partners take over schools on the verge of closure. These schools retain the existing student body and must serve students in their neighborhood.

LaVonia Abavana, a Camden native with three children of her own, had never heard of Renaissance Schools when she was faced with a tough choice for her youngest son. 

In this conversation, she tells us about navigating school options with a special-needs child and offers advice for parents.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

I had a chance to read a moving piece you wrote about your son KingSebastian. Can you share more of his education story?

When [KingSebastian] was going to his old school, in Camden Public Schools, we had a really, really hard time with bullying because of his Tourette Syndrome. We dealt with bullying from every level of leadership. Nobody understood what it was, and he was getting sanctioned for it and punished for it. His confidence was really, really low. Even though I tried to give him positive talks and everything, he just did not want to go to school.

After two years of trying to work things out with no success, I did a vigorous search for a different school. I talked to my neighbors and the community members I see every day, I went on Camden Enrollment, I looked at the Camden Enrollment booklet that shows you all of the schools’ growth rates and academics, and so forth. I’d never heard of a Renaissance School before, and I was kind of scared. But after calling [a Renaissance School network in Camden],* I felt kind of confident. So I put him in [a Renaissance School in Camden].  Continue reading

What are Blaine Amendments and Why Might SCOTUS End Them?

Today the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) will hear oral arguments in Espinoza v. Montana Dept. of Revenue, a case that could have massive consequences for hundreds of thousands of K-12 students across the country — and might even lead to changes in several state constitutions. 

United States Supreme Court Building by Joe Ravi, Wikimedia license CC-BY-SA 3.0

The case centers on three families participating in Montana’s tax credit scholarship program, a policy that gave tax credits to people who donated to scholarship organizations, organizations which could then help low-income students pay for private K-12 schools, including private religious schools. However, the Montana Department of Revenue issued a rule stating that scholarships could not be used at religious schools, and later the Montana Supreme Court ruled that any aid to religious schools violated part of their state’s constitution, specifically a provision against public funding for “sectarian schools,” commonly known as a “Blaine Amendment.” Eighteen other states already have similar tax credit scholarship programs and 37 states have some form of Blaine Amendment. 

The three families, in partnership with the Institute for Justice, now have the chance to make their case before SCOTUS. The parents are arguing that their right to free expression of religion was violated by the ruling in Montana. The other side argues that funding any private school — religious or not — was unconstitutional at the state level and that overturning the state’s tax credit scholarship program did not lead to any violation of free expression. (SCOTUS started to define how state governments might provide funding to religious schools under the Constitution beginning in the 1970’s with Lemon v. Kurtzman and has been refined through subsequent cases, like Zelman v. Simmons-Harris in 2002 and Trinity Lutheran v. Comer in 2017.) Continue reading

Media: “Can education improve social mobility in America?” in Medium

Greg Richmond, formerly of Chicago Public Schools and more recently the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, has started an interview series where he asks people three questions (which differ by person) about their work or the education sector.

did one with him that is out this week. We talk about how education is such a powerful a lever for change, what I’ve learned since I was younger, and why data are so often weaponized in this sector. You can read the interview here and some discussion on Twitter here.

This passage, in particular, is sparking some interesting discussion:

A better question might be, “What should choice actually look like for a community?” In affluent communities, parents have lots of different choices, whether it is Montessori, Core Knowledge, or something with a thematic approach. But in low-income communities, the choice is too often the traditional public school, that hasn’t done well for generations, or three different flavors of vanilla. That doesn’t seem like genuine choice.

If we are serious about choice and equity, the choice frame in low-income communities should look like it does in more affluent communities in terms of the range of options that are available to parents — and grounded in what parents in that community desire for their kids. We have not realized that vision in a lot of places and obviously the insane politics around charters don’t make it any easier.

The Logic Behind School Choice — And Three Ways To Strengthen It

In recent weeks, Democratic presidential candidates’ views on education, specifically on school choice and charters, have come under scrutiny. And a recent EdNext poll indicates that Democrats are deeply divided on school choice topics. 

The usual debate on school choice asks “does it work,” but rarely do I hear discussion about how it’s intended to work in the first place.

Some people view school choice as a public good in and of itself, in that it provides options for families. For this group, evidence of student achievement, educational attainment, and other outcomes is secondary. It is the availability of and access to educational options — on their own — which validate the need for and merit of school choice.  

Others, myself included, view school choice as a potential means to an end: a way to improve educational opportunities not just for the students whose families are willing and able to choose, but for those students who remain in their traditional public schools as well. In theory, competition pressures schools to improve quality in order to retain their “customers,” i.e., students.

In order to get from point A (offering school choice) to point B (improved outcomes), what has to happen? The logic model below outlines the theory behind my perspective:  Continue reading