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September 21, 2015

School boards as charter school authorizers

The issue of charter schools got thrust back into the spotlight with the recent court decision from Washington State that ruled the state’s charter school law unconstitutional. I’m not going get into the particulars of the case but the decision highlights the fine line between the public’s right to determine how their tax dollars are spent and accommodating a parent’s desire to choose a school that is right for their child.

Many states walk this fine line by allowing for the creation of charter schools that any parent can choose to send their child to while making sure the charter schools are authorized by the local school board to oversee but not run the schools. In such a setup, all parents have a choice about where to send their child to school and taxpayers still have a voice in holding charter schools accountable.

Yet, there are some proponents of charter schools who argue the school boards should not authorize charter schools. For example, in its annual state charter school policy rankings, the Center for Education Reform gives credit to states when they allow agencies or institutions other than local school boards to authorize charter schools .  The CER is certainly not alone. I’ve written about similar criticisms in the past here and here.

As I wrote earlier, such critics didn’t have any actual evidence to back up their argument against school board as authorizers. I pointed to the fact that while critics constantly claimed school boards were reluctant to allow charter schools into their districts, school boards actually had a higher acceptance rate than other authorizers such as state boards of education and independent state charter boards. In the years since, not much has changed. The most recent data from the National Association for Charter School Authorizers  showed that school boards had the second highest approval rate out of the five authorizing types. Moreover, only two other authorizing types had higher closure rates as well. As I argued previously, if school boards were so threatened by charter schools why are they more likely to approve a new charter school’s application and less likely to close them?

But one piece of data I didn’t have at the time was whether charter schools authorized by school boards were more effective than charter schools authorized by other agencies such as independent charter school boards. That data simply wasn’t available at the time. However, this past June the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University (CREDO) published a report that for the first time examined the impact of authorizer type on student outcomes. Keep in mind, the report is far from definitive. It is based on only one state, Texas, where 88 percent of the charter schools are authorized by the state board of education while the remaining 12 percent were authorized by school boards. While not conclusive, this report nonetheless provides additional evidence as to the effectiveness of school boards as authorizers.

Specifically, the report found school board authorized charter schools outperformed those authorized by the state board in both math and reading every year between 2009 and 2013. In some years students who attended charter schools made nearly a year’s more worth of learning than similar students who had attended charter schools authorized by the state board of education. So these were no small differences.

While the recent report doesn’t prove that school boards are more effective charter school authorizers than other agencies, it is one more piece of evidence to refute the claims from critics who believe school boards are holding charter schools back and shouldn’t be allowed to authorize charter schools. Such critics like to use anecdotes to back up their claims but school boards can use data to back up theirs just as effective authorizers are expected to do. – Jim Hull


Filed under: Charter Schools,school organization — Jim Hull @ 8:51 am

August 25, 2015

New Poll Shows Parents Skeptical of Common Core and Testing

Public school parents and the public at large are skeptical of the Common Core State Standards (Common Core) and the usefulness of standardized testing, according to The 47th Annual PDK/Gallup Poll of The Public Attitudes Toward The Public Schools released this week. The annual poll also found that while parents like to have a choice on where to send their child to school, they oppose the use of public dollars to send students to private schools in the form of vouchers.

The poll’s findings show the general public, as well as, parents of public school children value other measures of school effectiveness beyond standardized tests. However, the results should not be seen as a total indictment of standardized tests, as results show the public is just as skeptical about allowing students to opt-out of standardized tests. This aligns with the results of the most recent Education Next poll which found the majority of the public supportive of the federal requirement to test students annually in math and reading. So, while the public may be getting weary of standardized testing, there is little support for their abolishment, especially among black and Hispanics. However, the public clearly feels that schools should be judged by more than test scores.


The Findings

Standardized Testing

  • The public places a much higher importance on student engagement over standardized tests.
    • Nationally, 78 percent of respondents rated student engagement as ‘very important’ when it came to measuring the effectiveness of public schools in their community.
    • On the other hand, just 14 percent of respondents rated standardized tests as ‘very important,’ making it the lowest-rated measure included in the survey.
  • Scores from standardized tests were the lowest rated approach of the choices given in the poll to providing the most accurate picture of a public school’s academic progress.
    • The public preferred examples of student work (38 percent), written observations by teachers (26 percent), and grades awarded by the teacher (21 percent) over scores from standardized tests (16 percent)
    • However, black respondents favored scores from standardized tests more than white respondents (19 v 15 percent).
  • Most believe there is too much emphasis on standardized tests.
    • Two-thirds of public school parents feel there is too much emphasis on testing while just 19 percent feel there is just the right amount of emphasis on testing.
    • However, black respondents were less likely to say there is too much emphasis on testing than white respondents (57 v 65 percent).
  • Respondents are split on whether to allow parents to ‘opt-out’ their child from standardized tests.
    • Just 41 percent of parents believed they should be allowed to excuse their child from tests while 44 believed such an option shouldn’t be allowed.
    • Yet, just 28 percent of black respondents believed parents should be able to excuse their child from standardized tests compared to 44 percent of white respondents.
  • Few students complain about taking too many standardized tests.
    • Just 16 percent of public school parents ‘strongly agreed’ that their child complains about taking too many standardized tests.
  • Most public school parents don’t believe it is important to know how students in their community’s schools perform on standardized tests compared to students in other districts, states, or countries.
    • Just 18 percent of respondents said they believed it was important to compare test schools from their community’s schools to those in other districts or states.
    • A greater percentage (24 percent) did say it was important to compare test schools with students from other countries.

Common Core

  • Few public school parents feel achievement standards are too low in their community.
    • A third of public school parents feel student achievement standards are too low compared to 12 percent who feel they are too high.
    • Nearly half (48 percent) believe achievement standards are just about right.
  • Majority of parents oppose having teachers in their community use the Common Core standards to guide what they teach.
    • 54 percent of parents oppose the use of Common Core compared to just 25 percent who are in favor.
    • Most Republicans (69 percent) oppose the use of the standards while Democrats (38 percent) feel the same. Half of Independents also oppose the use of the Common Core.
    • Blacks are less likely to oppose the use of the Common Core compared to whites (35 v 57 percent).
  • Few have heard a great deal about the Common Core.
    • Less than a quarter (22 percent) of respondents have heard a great deal about the Common Core although the percentage increases to 30 percent for public school parents.
    • Republicans (25 percent) are more likely to say they have heard about the Common Core than Democrats (19 percent) or Independents (22 percent).

Opinions about Public Schools

  • Local public schools receive high marks.
    • 70 percent of public school parents give the school their oldest child attends an A or B, while 57 percent gave the same grades to all public schools in their community.
    • However, just 19 percent of public school parents would give schools nationally an A or B.
  •  The public sees funding as a major tool to improving public schools.
    • Nearly a quarter (23 percent) of respondents listed lack of financial support as the biggest problem facing public schools. Standards/quality of education came in second with just 7 percent.
    • Nearly half (45 percent) of respondents believe that how much money schools spend is important to improving public schools in their community.

School Choice

  • Most respondents favor public school choice programs.
    • 64 percent of respondents favor charter schools and intra-district school choice programs.
  • Most respondents oppose vouchers
    • Just 31 percent of respondents favor allowing parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense.
    • Republicans are split on this issue (46 percent opposed and 46 in favor) while Democrats are thoroughly opposed (71 percent opposed to 16 percent in favor). The majority of independents are also oppose (63 percent).


June 10, 2015

Nevada bets the schools’ bank

Nevada is known for gaming. That could explain why lawmakers there are willing to gamble on the delivery of public education in the state by passing the most sweeping school choice bill in the nation.

SB 302 (the bill has no name that I could find) offers Nevada public school parents a grant that they can use to pay for private school, online courses, or homeschooling expenses for their child. The roughly $5,000 per student subsidy will be deposited in individual education savings accounts (ESAs) for parents who leave public traditional and charter schools. The cost will be deducted from the state per-pupil allotment that would have otherwise gone to the child’s resident school district.

ESAs are not unique to Nevada. Arizona, Florida and Tennessee provide similar grants to parents whose children have special needs or, in the case of Arizona, are currently attending a low-performing school. Other states like Indiana and Florida provide state-funded vouchers to qualifying families that are similar to ESAs but are typically restricted to use in private schools only. What truly distinguishes the Nevada program from these others, however, is its universality. While other states limit eligibility, Nevada opens up ESAs to every child who has been enrolled in a public school for at least 100 consecutive days prior to applying for the grant. Officials estimate that the bill will affect 93 percent of all school-aged children in the state.

School choice advocates are relishing in the unprecedented scale of the Nevada bill in the belief it will give them a chance to do something decades of choice experiments across the country have failed to do  – demonstrate that a free market approach to education will drive school improvement. Education Week reports that the bill was drafted with the help of several national pro-school choice organizations, including the Goldwater Institute, the Freidman Foundation and the Foundation for Excellence in Education through its lobbying arm, Excel National.  Following its passage, Excel National released a statement saying, “This is a monumental leap forward in the fight for student-focused policies that allow every child the opportunity to receive a quality education.”

But will SB 302 offer this opportunity? Here’s what Nevada is gambling:

Gamble #1: Private schools will want ESA kids. Indiana has the largest voucher program in the country. Yet three years into the program, two-thirds of the state’s private schools are declining to accept voucher students. This is perhaps one reason only 4% of students who are eligible to participate are taking advantage of the state vouchers.  Even if a Nevada private school will accept ESA students, there’s no guarantee the school will take all who apply. For one, there may not be available seats. For another, there could be admissions criteria that screen for the most desirable students.

Gamble #2: ESAs will benefit low-income students. Children with disabilities or from families at or below 185 percent of the poverty line qualify to receive 100 percent of the state per-pupil allocation, currently about $5,700 per year. All other students are able to receive a grant equal to 90 percent, or $5,100. Nationally, the average yearly tuition at private schools was $10,740 for the 2011-12 academic year. Elementary schools, which tend to be cheaper, cost an average of $7,770. While Nevada may have some more affordable options available, families are certain to run into tuitions that exceed the ESA. Those who can afford to supplement the costs will do so, but low-income families are not likely to be among them. This begs the question – rather than opening up opportunities for all Nevada children, will the state be subsidizing private education for those who are in a better position to afford it anyway?

Gamble #3: Choice schools will be better schools. This is the basic premise underlying all choice arguments — that when parents are given the opportunity, they will choose a better educational fit for their child who will in turn perform better. This is not to say that parents do not want to make a good choice or are incapable of choosing well. They do and they are. However, it does assume that the simple act of allowing parents to opt in produces better results. And the track record on choice policies to date is really weak.

CPE has reviewed research on various educational options, including charter schools, voucher programs, virtual schooling and homeschooling. (A concise overview of all these findings will be published later this year.) The best that can be said is that school choice works for some students sometimes, is worse for some students sometimes, and is often no better or worse than the public school students attended before. Research on voucher programs, for example, shows some gains for minority and/or low-income students, while most studies show similar performance to public school students. One exception may be higher graduation rates. In addition, our earlier report on virtual schooling found, with the exception of a few noteworthy instances, there was little to commend in full-time online schooling for most students, and that even single courses had their risks.

Good data on homeschooling is non-existent. Anecdotes about the Tim Tebows and other homeschool success stories get wide play, many of which you can find here. Less heard are the stories about when homeschooling goes wrong – voices that are just beginning to emerge, for example, here and here. What is missing is a picture of how homeschooled students fare overall.

Nevada’s bill attempts to hedge its bets when it comes to quality control over school choices by requiring all ESA recipients to take standardized tests in math and English language arts. Participating private schools must further report the aggregated results of these tests to the Nevada Department of Education, which will publish the data. No performance thresholds or consequences are defined, however, so it’s unclear what, if anything, would happen if the ESA students don’t get the quality education they were promised.

And that, my friends, is a huge gamble.  — Patte Barth

Filed under: Charter Schools,Parents,Public education,vouchers — Tags: , , , — Patte Barth @ 7:30 am

August 21, 2014

Common core support drops, local control rules, and other public opinion trends

Back to school season means it’s also time for the yearly ritual of gauging American attitudes about their public schools. Two major surveys released this week once again show that the public says its local schools are great even though they think U.S. schools overall are in the tank (a mathematical impossibility, by the way). The surveys also highlight some inconsistencies in public thinking as well as widespread acceptance of misinformation, particularly regarding the common core. So let’s start there.

First, what a difference a year makes! The 46th annual PDK/Gallup poll registered a big increase in public awareness about the Common Core State Standards between 2013 and 2014. Last year, only 38 percent said they had heard of them. This year, awareness has more than doubled to 81 percent. But that wasn’t the only shift. Of those who knew about the Common Core in 2013 a majority liked them, but that pendulum swung, too. Now according to PDK, only 33 percent support the new standards while a full 60 percent are opposed.

A new poll from Education Next shows the same downward trend in public support for Common Core as PDK, although EN shows that a majority are still favorable: 53 percent of the public supported them in 2014 compared to 65 percent the year before. EN teased out attitudes by party affiliation and found that Democrats were more far more likely to support Common Core than Republicans — 65 to 43 percent, respectively. Still, even among Republicans, support is significantly higher than PDK reported.

EN also conducted a small randomized experiment. They asked the same question about Common Core standards to one half of the survey pool, except they eliminated the words “Common Core” in the brackets below:

As you may know, in the last few years states have been deciding whether or not to use [the Common Core, which are] standards for reading and math that are the same across the states. In the states that have these standards, they will be used to hold public schools accountable for their performance. Do you support or oppose the use of these [the Common Core] standards in your state?

Now it gets interesting. When the words “Common Core” are eliminated, public support rises from 53 to 68 percent. Moreover, Republicans approved of the non-Common Core statement at the same rate as Democrats. The conflicting poll results could suggest that the Common Core critics are winning the media war. As EN puts it, the words themselves may have become “toxic.” As further evidence, the poll found that the majority of the public believed statements about the Common Core that were not true, such as the federal government requires states to use the Common Core. Yet these beliefs have entered into the information stream and are affecting public attitudes.

Of course, it’s also possible that we are seeing a sea change in attitudes. The EN survey raises an issue that should be of major concern: teacher support for the Common Core declined the most. In 2013, a full three-quarters of the teachers polled were in favor of the Common Core. In just one year their support plummeted to slightly less than half (46 percent). One has to wonder if teachers are expressing their frustration with inadequate implementation support. If this is the case, state and district policymakers should pay close attention.

On other topics, the public continues to view public schooling as a mostly local concern, according to PDK. The majority of the public — 56 percent — say local school boards should have the “greatest influence in deciding what is taught in public schools,” followed by 28 percent who say the state should, and only 15 percent who say the federal government should. In addition, to know public schools is to love them. Consistent with results of the last 20 years, the public gives public schools nationally poor grades, but grade their local schools highly. In 2014, 50 percent of the public and 67 percent of public school parents gave their local schools an ‘A’ or ‘B’ compared to 17 percent who gave the nation’s schools high grades. However, this represents a slight drop from 2013 overall.

Both PDK and EN found that the public continues to like the idea of charter schools. But the polls conflict over voucher support. PDK reported that nearly two-thirds of the public opposed vouchers, while EN showed that about half support vouchers for students in “failing public schools” and even for “universal vouchers.” Surprisingly, only a third told EN they would support vouchers for low-income families.

As always, polls can be useful in understanding what the public is thinking. But this year’s polling seems to further cast a light on winners and losers in communicating their messages. — Patte Barth

July 22, 2014

Do charter schools really get more bang for the buck?

Cost-benefit A new study from the School Choice Demonstration Project at the University of Arkansas claims that charter schools are 40 percent more productive than traditional public schools. They found that for every $1000 invested, charter schools obtain approximately a year and half more in student learning than traditional public schools — meaning, in essence, charter schools can be just as effective as traditional public schools at nearly half the cost.

These are incredibly strong findings for charter schools. If charter schools can do everything traditional public schools do at nearly half the cost why shouldn’t policymakers invest more in their expansion? The problem is this study doesn’t even attempt to determine if charter schools can provide the same services with fewer funds than traditional public schools. While the study excludes funding for pre-k and adult education from their calculations — services many traditional schools offer but most charter schools don’t — the authors did not make any adjustments for the fact that:

      • Traditional public schools are much more likely than charter schools to provide costly services such as transportation and extracurricular activities such as athletics, band, theater, and civic clubs.
      •  A smaller proportion of charter schools than traditional public schools are high schools which typically require significantly more funding than elementary and middle schools.
      • Traditional public schools enroll a larger proportion of special needs students such as special education and English Language Learners (ELL) who typically require more funding than the average student. This is especially true for severely disabled students which typically cost districts four times more to educate than the average student. However, charter schools rarely enroll severely disabled students.
      • A number of charter schools are located in buildings owned by traditional public schools at no or reduced costs to the charter school. Even though by doing so traditional public school are in fact subsidizing charter schools, this is not accounted for within the study so it appears that traditional public schools are using more funds than charter schools.

The authors claim they did not make these and other adjustments, “To avoid the appearance of taking an advocacy position…” However, making an apples to apples comparison of how much funding charter schools receive to provide similar services as traditional public schools is not taking an advocacy position. It can be done with objective statistics.

Yet, as the authors note doing so is extremely difficult, if not impossible, as it would take going through every line item of the budgets for both charter schools and traditional public school districts. While indeed it would an arduous undertaking, it is the only way to accurately determine if charter schools can educate our students as well as traditional public schools but at a lower cost.

Until such a study is conducted that at least attempts to compare the funding for similar services provided, such claims that charter schools are more productive than traditional public schools cannot be substantiated. – Jim Hull

Filed under: Charter Schools,CPE,Report Summary — Jim Hull @ 3:42 pm

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