Tag Archives: School Choice

An Expanded Federal Role in School Choice? No Thanks.

In yet another illustration of his selective embrace of conservative precepts, President-Elect Trump has proposed an expanded federal role in school choice. His nomination of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education, a long-time leader in the school choice movement, reaffirms this campaign commitment and foreshadows a difficult choice for Republicans in Congress.

Betsy DeVos

On the one hand, DeVos could use the purse strings of the U.S. Department of Education (USED) to significantly expand the school options available to families. On the other hand, a federal role in another area of education policy – traditionally (and constitutionally) reserved for the states – asks conservative school choice proponents to swallow a bitter pill. The new administration will need congressional Republicans to support its ambitions for school choice, but they should not sacrifice federalism on the altar of school choice.

No matter how carefully designed or who is at the helm, introducing a federal role in national school choice policies is a Pandora’s box. Some believe it would be possible to walk the line. Former Bellwether partner and current AEI resident fellow Andy Smarick recently suggested federal policymakers could use the existing federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) as a model for supporting school choice without a wanton expansion of the federal role.

The CSP is probably the best example of how USED has supported the growth of the charter sector and the closest proxy for a parallel federal investment in school choice. But it’s important not to romanticize it. Along with other high-profile federal grant programs (e.g. Race to the Top, Teacher Incentive Fund, Investing in Innovation), the CSP grant has allowed the federal government to weigh in on questions previously reserved for state and local policymakers.

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Four (or More) Ideas for Trump’s Education Agenda

It’s over. Finally. Now we all return to calm, reasoned litigation of important issues and cat videos, right? Just kidding, I never liked cat videos anyway.

But seriously, now Donald Trump must shift attention away from winning the election to the business of governing. The President-elect and his transition team must translate all those vague platitudes and pledges to fix our nation’s ills into actual policies and plans, and then select people to lead those efforts.donald-trump-1332922_640

This summer after the conventions, Bellwether published a collection of 16 education policy ideas for the next president. The collection ranges in topics and ideological perspectives — its intention was to provide actionable ideas that could appeal to either campaign and jump start the creation of an education agenda no matter who prevailed on November 8.

Now that we know who will occupy the oval office in January, the next question is how will President-elect Trump’s plans for education shape up.

Throughout the election, the Trump campaign’s primary education focus was school choice. Based on that priority, we think several 16 for 16 suggestions would align well with a Trump administration education agenda centered on creating more education options and empowering families:

  1. Providing federal support to spur development of a range of school options across sectors, public and private (Chapter 12)
  2. Doubling down on the successes of the Charter School Program to seed more autonomous public schools (Chapter 1)
  3. Adapting the successful federal incentives program that drives private investment and development of affordable housing to encourage private investment in charter school facilities (Chapter 10)
  4. Empowering families to create and influence schools that meet their children’s and their communities’ particular needs (Chapter 15)

There are a host of other ideas in our collection that would enable better federal support for students in all our public schools — ranging from the expansion of proven mentoring programs to healthier food for students in the federal government’s multi-billion dollar National School Lunch program. Some ideas are nuts and bolts, good government plays (improving the way the Department of Education holds grantees accountable for results), while others are more cutting edge and innovative (bringing the technology underpinning Bitcoin into the education data space). 

The bottom line is there’s a lot of food for thought to fill in the blanks left from an election cycle that was focused elsewhere. We invite President-elect Trump and his transition team to take a look as they develop the next generation of federal education priorities — the 16 for 16 contributors have teed up a rolling start.

5 Things the Pence Pick Could Mean for the Future of Federal Education Policy

Read more live coverage of #EDlection2016 via Bellwether and The 74’s Convention Live Blog.

Donald Trump and Mike Pence talk to “60 Minutes.” Photo: CBS News

The Veep-stakes are over! The pick is in. Mike Pence, the sitting Governor of Indiana, will run as Trump’s Vice President. Although he has only been Governor for a few years, Pence also served in the U.S. House of Representatives. Putting those records together, we can get a sense of what the Pence pick could mean for public education.

  • Tough sledding for civil rights. Pence’s stance on equal rights is pretty clear. Everyone remembers the law he signed permitting individuals and businesses to discriminate against LGBT people. So, many federal student protections could be in jeopardy, including President Obama’s executive action on bathroom use for transgender students. In a similar vein, Pence strongly supports states’ rights and local control. He likely would advocate for reducing (perhaps even further) the federal footprint in education. This is bad news for low-income students and students of color who frequently receive low-quality educations and depend on federal support.
  • Funding redistribution (but not to support low-income students). If his most recent budget in Indiana is any indication, Pence certainly feels that something needs to be done to improve school funding in this country. Unfortunately, however, he seems to think wealthier districts need an even bigger slice of the school funding pie.
  • Charter expansion. In addition to increasing funding for charters broadly, Pence also supported the so-called “Freedom to Teach” bill. The idea is to help provide teachers with the flexibility they need to innovate in their classrooms. Some teachers and union representatives argue that they already have that freedom. Instead, they believe that the bill is designed to limit union power and invite private entities to run public schools.
  • Vouchers Vouchers Vouchers. For years Pence has been a vocal proponent of school vouchers and expanding the use of public funds to pay for private education. Last year he helped to shepherd a bill to raise the voucher limit on funds available for elementary school students. A Trump/Pence White House may provide the strongest support for expanding voucher programs in decades.
  • Preschool a priority (kind of). It’s a far cry from universal pre-K, but Pence was able to expand Indiana’s pre-school program. He also recently committed to expanding the program further with or without federal support. It is important to note, however, that Pence previously refused millions of dollars of federal support, and only seemed interested in them now that he is up for reelection. 

In education policy, Pence sticks to the party-line. For that reason, his selection should make many conservatives happy. But students and teachers should be on high alert. In a Trump/Pence White House, it would take a watchful eye and strong advocacy to preserve critical federal protections for vulnerable students, ensure low-income students get their fair share of funding, and prioritize students’ needs over states’ rights.

Leaders of Religious Private School Management Organizations Have New Complexities to Navigate

Private school management organizations (PSMOs) can learn a lot from the challenges and successes of charter school management organizations (CMOs) over the last couple of decades. However, one element crucial to many private schools’ missions—their religious orientation—creates a new and different set of challenges for PSMOs to navigate as they grow and expand.

As described in our recent paper, the degree of separation from a religious institution is a key factor differentiating existing PSMOs. Some PSMOs, like Blyth-Templeton and Thales Academy, are nonsectarian and therefore function very similarly to CMOs, entirely separate from any religious organizations.

But the vast majority of PSMOs in our study—12 of the 14—are religiously affiliated. Eight of the 12 PSMOs operate Catholic schools. To be considered Catholic schools, the local Bishop must formally recognize them as such, and all Catholic schools are governed by Canon law. Most are directly run by either an individual parish (parochial schools) or by the local diocese (diocesan schools). Historically, pastors have had a great deal of responsibility for running schools, overseeing not only the religious education but also the hiring of the principal and teachers, the school facility, the budget, managing enrollment, and more. When a PSMO takes over the operation of a Catholic school, however, it means a redistribution of these responsibilities and a new relationship between the pastor, parish, church community, school staff, and PSMO leaders. (For a fuller explanation of the history and governance of Catholic schools, see this guidebook.)

The Catholic PSMOs in our study have approached this challenge in a number of ways. Some, like the San Jose Drexel Schools and the Jubilee Schools in Memphis, are what we call “church-operated” PSMOs. Much like “skunk works” operations within large firms where a small group of people pursues a new idea outside of routine organizational procedures, church-operated PSMOs are separate offices embedded within the hierarchy of their local diocese. Although the diocese remains responsible for the success or failure of the schools, the PSMOs’ offices have been given considerable flexibility around the operations of a subset of schools. For example, the Jubilee Schools have a longer school day and year-round school calendar, different from the other schools in the diocese.

Other Catholic PSMOs have embraced what we call a “church-affiliated” model. These networks are all separate 501(c)(3) organizations that, through a management agreement with the local diocese, assumed operational control of a subset of the diocese’s schools. The nuances of these agreements—and their origins—vary significantly from PSMO to PSMO, and are prime fodder for additional study. But even just the basics that we cover in our paper suggest interesting divergence. For example, the Archdiocese of New York’s 2010 Strategic Plan laid out a plan for moving toward a regionalized governance structure that included the creation of a set of six inner-city elementary schools to be managed by a local nonprofit organization, The Partnership for Inner-city Education (PNYC). Through an 11-year agreement with the Archdiocese, PNYC has broad authority over the budgets, finances, operations, and academic programming of the six schools. As part of its five-year agreement with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the Faith in the Future (FIF) PSMO agreed to underwrite the deficits of the 17 high schools and four special education schools over which it gained operational control.

The Notre Dame ACE Academies (NDAA) has a considerably different model: Rather than assuming operational control of a set of schools in one particular geography, NDAA partners with local dioceses in multiple geographies to create a new, separate board to govern a subset of schools. NDAA provides a couple of board members and a school principal. Unlike the agreements forged by PNYC or FIF, under the NDAA model parishes continue to oversee and operate each school. The new board and principal allow NDAA to play a key role in school operations such as school culture, governance, finance, instruction, and family and community engagement.

Cristo Rey, on the other hand, has no such agreement with a diocese. Instead, its model is much closer to that of nonsectarian PSMOs or even CMOs. All of Cristo Rey’s schools are independent Catholic schools sponsored by religious orders rather than affiliated with a particular parish. Per Canon law, all of the network’s schools are formally recognized as Catholic by the local Bishop. But beyond that, there is no formal relationship between the schools and the diocese (although many schools do have close, voluntary relationships with the various orders that sponsor them).

The intricacies of Catholic PSMOs’ relationships with their local dioceses and the specifics of the various management agreements are important points for additional research. Not only is the field of PSMOs relatively new and burgeoning, but navigating relationships with religious institutions is something not paralleled in the public school sector. The Catholic PSMOs in this study have begun to pave new roads for future PSMOs. Their successes and challenges and ongoing navigation of a bureaucracy as complex and time-honored as the Catholic Church—all while respecting the history, faith, values, customs, and traditions of the Church and its local parishes, priests, and communities—must not be overlooked.

New Private School Management Organizations Come in Different Shapes and Sizes

Charter management organizations (CMOs) have driven much of the growth in quality charter school options in the public sector. An emerging group of private school management organizations (PSMOs) has the potential to do the same in the private sector.

In a paper released this morning, Juliet Squire, Andy Smarick, and I undertake what we believe to be the first-ever study of PSMOs. Through research and interviews with the leaders of 14 existing PSMOs—collectively operating 134 schools serving 42,000 kids—we explore the nature of PSMOs, how existing PSMOs are similar to and different from one another, and what it will take to support the growth of high-quality private school networks.

We define PSMOs as independent entities that operate or help operate three or more private schools. This means that PSMOs (1) are neither governmental agencies nor embedded within a church hierarchy; (2) directly operate or support the operation of schools including hiring staff, procuring supplies, providing back-office supports, and more; and (3) run at least three private schools.

Through our research we identified five key factors that differentiate the PSMOs in our study:

  • Whether they operate new or existing schools: Similar to CMOs, some PSMOs operate “takeover” or “turnaround” schools while others open new schools.
  • The type of growth they are pursuing: In some cases networks are looking for ways to help schools make their financial ends meet, usually through growing enrollment in existing schools. We call this “sustainability” growth. Other PSMOs plan to add more high-quality seats by opening new schools. We call this “footprint” growth.
  • Their funding models: Most commonly, PSMOs rely on tuition, philanthropy, public programs, or a blend of those three sources.
  • Their degree of independence from a religious institution: PSMOs often operate faith-based schools and in some cases have to navigate complex church hierarchies. We classify PSMOs into three categories: church-operated PSMOs, which are operated by an office or body within the church but are separate from the traditional reporting structure of the church; church-affiliated PSMOs, which are separate 501(c)(3) organizations that manage a subset of schools through a negotiated contract with the church; and independent PSMOs, which are fully independent of a religious institution.
  • Their degree of operational and academic centralization: We sought to understand whether the PSMO central office or individual schools are responsible for decisions related to securing facilities, curriculum, classroom materials, scheduling, and hiring teachers and other school-based staff.

Using these five dimensions we categorized the PSMOs in our study into three types:

  1. Redemptive Networks generally operate existing schools, have a sustainability-focused growth mindset, are either church-operated or church-affiliated, and are academically decentralized but operationally centralized. These networks typically rely on either philanthropy or family-paid tuition to support the operating costs of the schools in their portfolios. Six networks—the Catholic Partnership Schools, Faith in the Future, Independence Mission Schools, Jubilee Schools, Partnership Schools, and the San Jose Drexel Schools—fit in this category.
  1. Expansion Networks look most similar to the CMOs found in the public sector. They open new schools, have plans to grow their footprints, are funded primarily through either tuition or public programs, are fully independent of religious institutions, and are generally academically and operationally centralized. Five networks—Blyth-Templeton, HOPE Christian Schools, LUMIN, Thales Academy, and The Oaks Academy—fit in this category.
  1. Hybrid Networks share some characteristics with both Redemptive and Expansion Networks, but have undertaken innovative approaches to their models that distinguish them in important ways from other PSMOs. Notre Dame ACE Academies, Cristo Rey, and the Denver Street Schools are all Hybrid Networks.

Many private schools have a long track record of providing a high-quality education to low-income and minority students living in our nation’s inner cities. While there is limited evidence to date of the academic track records of PSMOs, they have the potential to greatly expand the private school options to which families have access. Understanding the key differentiating factors among existing PSMOs is key to understanding how social entrepreneurs, practitioners, policymakers, advocates, and philanthropists can support the creation, growth, and development of PSMOs and more high-quality private schools for families.