what betsy's reading

Has the charter school movement gone awry? A new book says yes, and it’s causing a stir

A student does classwork at James Irwin Charter Elementary School in Colorado Springs. (Denver Post file)

What’s the point of a charter school? Is acting as another option for families enough, or should it have to post higher test scores than other schools, too?

Those questions are at the heart of a growing rift in the education reform world — and the focus of a new book making waves among some of its most prominent conservative figures.

The book, a collection of essays edited by the Center for Education Reform’s Jeanne Allen and Cara Candal and the Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, makes the case that the charter school movement has gone awry: it’s over-regulated, hyper-focused on tests, and dismissive of families.

They appear to have an ally in U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. In a recent speech to charter school leaders, DeVos criticized lengthy charter applications, warning that “many who call themselves ‘reformers’ have instead become just another breed of bureaucrats.”

What’s needed now, the book’s authors say, is more innovation and less of a focus on test results. That argument prompted Checker Finn, the former president of the Fordham Institute, a right-of-center education think tank, to call the book “idiocy.” In an email exchange among a number of well-known education reformers, Allen shot back, saying Finn was “catching the same disease that befell Diane Ravitch,” the school choice advocate-turned-reform-critic.

The book’s arguments mark a break from longtime tenets of conservative education reform, particularly the test-based accountability promoted by two powerful brothers, George W. and Jeb Bush, over the last 20 years. And with DeVos at the helm of the federal education department and Republicans in control of most state legislatures and governorships, the manifesto may serve as a blueprint for conservative policymakers across the country.

“I do think the free-market crowd has emerged a bit from the shadows and is sensing in the current administration and political climate an opportunity to muscle into a stronger role in defining the future of school choice,” said Jeff Henig, a professor at Columbia.

Calls for a broader vision for the charter movement

Allen and Eden say charter school advocates can be divided into two camps.

In one corner are “system-centered reformers,” who, in the authors’ telling, trust tests to measure school performance and trust themselves to oversee those schools.

In the other are “parent-centered reformers.” They want to see a system “where educational entrepreneurs are freer to open new schools and parents decide which schools should close and which should expand based on whether they want to send their children there.” DeVos — who appeared at a private reception held by Allen’s Center for Education Reform in June — has described her vision in similar terms.

The rest of the book, “Charting a New Course,” expands on the idea that charter schools need fewer restrictions. An opening piece by Allen argues that the charter school sector has become too risk-averse and uniform, while Eden says that advocates have been too focused on increasing test scores through no-excuses charter schools in urban areas.

In separate essays, Derrell Bradford of the advocacy group 50CAN writes that charters should expand to the suburbs to broaden their political coalition. Robert Pondiscio of the Fordham Institute says that test-based accountability has led to the narrowing of the school curriculum, and University of Arkansas professor Jay Greene argues that test scores are poor proxies for students’ life outcomes and thus are of limited use for regulating charter schools.

Eden and Allen close the book with recommendations that include expanding the number and type of charter authorizers, ensuring charters are not bound by teacher certification rules, and reducing charter school regulations.

They suggest that charter schools should expand not only because of their measurable outcomes but because parents subscribe to their values.

“Fundamentally, chartering is about creating the space for this freedom,” Eden and Allen write. “Some charter advocates view charter schooling as simply a means to an end, as a more efficient way to drive higher test scores. But freedom is a good in and of itself.”

Are authorizers already doing this?

A centerpiece of the divide between the two charter camps, Eden and Allen write, is how the decision is made to close a charter school.

“In a parent-centered ecosystem, authorizers should retain the ability to close a school – but that decision should always be a human one,” they write. “Rather than simply close a school based on a formula for standardized test score performance, test scores should open a serious conversation rather than close one.”

One target of their ire: the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which they see as epitomizing the “system-centered” worldview.

So it’s surprising that Greg Richmond, president of NACSA, says he agrees that schools shouldn’t be closed based on test scores alone — which he says is already the case in most instances.

“It’s not only already happening, it’s something we have been recommending forever,” he told Chalkbeat.

Richmond supports closure laws that create a presumption that charters with poor academic results — usually measured largely through test scores — will close. But he says that authorizers and state accountability systems should look at other metrics like attendance, too.

Eden said he hopes that is what is actually going on, but he fears it’s not, since some states have laws outlining how test scores should prompt school closures.

At the heart of the disagreement is how heavily to weigh parental demand for a school. Richmond says that demand is relevant, though a NACSA guide exhorts authorizers not to “make renewal decisions … on the basis of political or community pressure.”

But political pressure to one person is democracy in action to the other.

“Political backlash is an attempt of constituents — parents, students, teachers — to communicate a strongly felt opinion towards a political actor that has authority over them,” Eden said. “That’s not something that should be short-circuited by policymakers; that’s something that that actor should have to reckon with directly.”

On one particularly pressing question about how to balance family demand and academic performance, the book is oddly silent: The topic of virtual charter schools.

Are these rapidly growing online schools, backed by DeVos and many choice advocates, an example of the innovation the authors seek? What to make of the apparently dismal academic performance — noted in multiple studies — of these schools? By what measures should they be judged?

Eden said he is open to additional regulation, but said he didn’t have a firm opinion on the topic, and not one of the book’s essays mentions virtual charter schools.

study up

Trump education nominee pleads ignorance about high-profile voucher studies showing negative results

At his confirmation hearing, Mick Zais, the nominee to be second-in-command at the Department of Education, said that he was not aware of high-profile studies showing that school vouchers can hurt student achievement.

It was a remarkable acknowledgement by Zais, who said he supports vouchers and would report to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose signature issue has been expanding publicly funded private school choice programs.

The issue was raised by Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who asked whether Zais, who was previously the South Carolina schools chief, was “aware of the research on the impact of vouchers on student achievement.”

He replied: “To the best of my knowledge, whenever we give parents an opportunity to choose a school that’s a good fit for their child the result is improved outcomes.”

Franken responded, “No, that’s not true. The academic outcomes for students who used vouchers to attend private school are actually quite abysmal.”

Franken proceeded to mention recent studies from Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, and Washington, DC that showed declines in test scores after students move to private schools with a voucher.

Zais responded: “Senator, I was unaware of those studies that you cited.”

Franken then asked if Zais’s initial response expressing confidence in school choice was anecdotal, and Zais said that it was.

What’s surprising about Zais’s response is that these studies were not just published in dusty academic journals, but received substantial media attention, including in the New York Times and Washington Post (and Chalkbeat). They’ve also sparked significant debate, including among voucher supporters, who have argued against judging voucher programs based on short-term test scores.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the research confusion was a bipartisan affair at Wednesday’s confirmation hearing.

Although Franken, who referred to a New York Times article on voucher research in his question, was broadly accurate in his description of the recent studies, he said that a DC voucher study showed “significantly lower math and reading scores”; in fact, the results were only statistically significant in math, not reading.

Franken also did not mention evidence that the initial negative effects abated in later years in Indiana and for some students in Louisiana, or discuss recent research linking Florida’s voucher-style tax credit program to higher student graduation rates.

In a separate exchange, Washington Sen. Patty Murray grilled Jim Blew — the administration’s nominee for assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development — on the performance of Michigan’s charter schools. Murray said that DeVos was “one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system,” describing the results as “disastrous for children.”

Blew disputed this: “The characterization of the charter school sector in Detroit as being a disaster seems unfair. The most reliable studies are saying, indeed, the charter school students outperform the district students.”

Murray responded: “Actually, Michigan’s achievement rates have plummeted for all kids. In addition, charter schools in Michigan are performing worse than traditional public schools.”

(Murray may be referring to an Education Trust analysis showing that Michigan ranking on NAEP exams have fallen relative to other states. The study can’t show why, or whether school choice policies are the culprit, as some have claimed.)

Blew answered: “The most reliable studies do show that the charter school students in Detroit outperform their peers in the district schools.”

Murray: “I would like to see that because that’s not the data that we have.”

Blew: “I will be happy to get if for you; it’s done by the Stanford CREDO operation.”

Murray: “I’m not aware of that organization.”

CREDO, a Stanford-based research institution, has conducted among the most widely publicized — and sometimes disputed — studies of charter schools. The group’s research on Detroit does show that the city’s charter students were outperforming similar students in district schools, though the city’s students are among the lowest-performing in the country on national tests.

Coming to Tennessee

Betsy DeVos to address Jeb Bush’s education summit in Nashville

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
Betsy DeVos is scheduled this month to make her first visit to Tennessee as U.S. secretary of education.

When former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush convenes his foundation’s annual education summit in Nashville this month, he will welcome the person he championed to be the nation’s education chief: Betsy DeVos.

The Foundation for Excellence in Education announced this week that DeVos will address its summit on Nov. 30 after Bush opens the gathering of education leaders from across the nation.

The speech will mark DeVos’s first official visit to Tennessee since the Michigan billionaire became President Trump’s secretary of education in February.

It also will reunite two old friends. Bush and DeVos worked closely together to advance school-choice initiatives in Florida, and Politico reported this month that it was Bush who recommended DeVos for the cabinet job to Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who led Trump’s White House transition team.

The upcoming addresses by DeVos and Bush are expected to offer a one-two punch on the merits of school choice, even as one of the movement’s primary vehicles — charter schools — have dropped substantially in popularity, according to a recent Education Next poll among both Democrats and Republicans.

The group’s 10th annual summit also will convene in a state that has consistently rejected vouchers as an alternative for students attending low-performing public schools.  Even as money has increasingly flowed into Tennessee to promote vouchers and voucher candidates, including cash from DeVos’s American Federation for Children, the proposal to provide students with state-funded tuition to attend private schools failed again this year to clear the state’s House of Representatives. (The Senate has passed the legislation three times. Lawmakers will take up the matter again in January.)

In announcing DeVos’s address on Thursday, the foundation trumpeted her as a longtime “advocate for children and a voice for parents.”

“As secretary, DeVos continues to advocate for returning control of education to states and localities, giving parents greater power to choose the educational settings that are best for their children, and ensuring that higher education puts students on the path to successful careers,” the announcement says.

DeVos will face a friendly audience of mostly like-minded reformers at the Nashville summit, but the reception she will receive outside is less certain; the city last year voted mostly for Democrat Hillary Clinton, even as the state gave Trump a solid win.

DeVos has been greeted by jeers and protests across America during her recently completed “Rethink School” tour. In Tennessee, anti-DeVos educators and parents congregated outside of U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander’s home offices on the eve of her confirmation vote by the Senate panel he chairs. Both of Tennessee’s senators also were deluged with phone calls before they ultimately cast their votes for Trump’s pick.

Bush launched his foundation in 2009 to promote the education model he led in Florida as governor: expanding private and charter school choice initiatives, holding back third-graders who failed reading tests, and awarding letter grades to schools based largely on test score performance.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush

Last year’s “ExcelinEd” summit in Washington, D.C., convened more than a thousand educators, policy experts and legislators from 47 states. Speakers included former education chiefs Arne Duncan, William Bennett and Rod Paige and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who served as the foundation’s interim leader during Bush’s failed 2016 quest for the White House.

This year’s event likely will include a focus on expanding the role of education technology in schools. Both DeVos and Bush have embraced tech-infused personalized learning and fully virtual schools. Online charter schools, though, have faced a wave of negative research and press, including a recent Chalkbeat investigation into a struggling school in Indiana. One of several sponsors of the summit is K12, the largest operator of virtual charters.

(Disclosure: The Summit’s list of sponsors also includes several supporters of Chalkbeat. You can find our list of major donors here.)