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July 19, 2014 standard

When it comes to efforts to expand charter schools, vouchers, and other forms of school choice, reformers tend to focus on three matters. The first? Expanding the array of options children need and deserve in the first place, including the development of course choice opportunities within districts and through online education. Secondly, they evangelize about the importance and value of expanding school opportunities for all kids; particularly among school choice activists, there is a tendency to argue that choice is the silver bullet for addressing the nation’s education crisis {(while curricula, standards, teacher quality, and accountability are given short shrift). And thirdly, they defend choice against the entreaties of traditionalists such as the Florida Education Association, the affiliate of both the National Education Association affiliates and the American Federation of Teachers that just filed suit this week against the Sunshine State’s expansion of vouchers for kids trapped in special ed ghettos.

Yet there is far more to making school choice work for all families — and it goes beyond expanding, promoting, and defending options. You have to build a strong infrastructure — from information on schools to providing high-quality data on their performance, to holding schools accountable, to providing transportation — to make choice work well. But few school choice activists and even fewer reformers give these infrastructural matters any shrift. Particularly for school choice activists of a conservative or libertarian bent (including University of Arkansas’ Jay P. Greene and Greg Forster at the Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation), thinking through these issues means challenging their own ideology — especially their misguided belief that choice alone will lead to improvements in school quality and serve as the best form of accountability — as well as their own financial concerns as members of a sector of American public education.

Which is why a report released last week by the Center for Reinventing Public Education on addressing the challenges of building robust infrastructures for advancing choice is so important. It is as important for reformers to deal with the complications of choice as it is to promote high-quality options for all children.

In the report (which focuses primarily on public-school choice options — but whose lessons also apply to vouchers and other choice regimes), a team led by Robin Lake surveyed how 4,000 families utilized choice in Baltimore, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., where charter schools and other forms of school options have become the norm. The good news is that families in those cities, regardless of their socioeconomic status, are availing themselves of the school opportunities available to them; 49 percent of families whose parents are high school dropouts and graduates leveraged choice as did 59 percent of households with at least some form of higher education. The bad news? Thanks to the inattention given to the infrastructure of developing choice, using school options isn’t easy for families to do.

The problems these families mentioned are ones that complicate choice in nearly every part of the country. The first: That families, especially those whose parents were dropouts or possessed only a high school diploma, had little information on their options. This included lacking knowledge about whether their kids were eligible to even access any school choice options. Even in states and cities with robust school choice options, parents often get little information about what opportunities are even available to them. Traditional districts, in particular, do as little as possible to inform families about their options; the penchant of districts to inform families of kids in failing schools of their options in June — just as families were going on summer break — is one reason why the No Child Left Behind’s school choice provision has never worked as envisioned.

Families whose parents were poorly-educated by traditional public education (and thus, more-likely to be poor) especially struggled with getting the information they needed to know what options were available or even if their kids could access them. Forty percent of families whose parents were dropouts  didn’t know if their kids were eligible for school choice, versus 24 percent of families whose parents were had baccalaureate degrees.

Even when families get information on their options, they don’t have the simple-yet-comprehensive data on school performance (and even the success or failure of teachers working in the schools) so they can make smart decisions. For families exercising public school choice — including charters and district-run magnet schools (which limit options through race- and socioeconomic quotas) — the reality that public school data remains a black box geared more toward compliance than toward providing useful information limits their ability to truly pick schools fit for their kids. A black family with two young sons, for example, may not be able to fully know if the schools they are scouring can actually improve student achievement for young black men.

This problem extends to families in the few states where they can use school vouchers and voucher-like tax credits to access private schools. They end up only having metrics such as class size ratios, information on school accreditation, even the percentage of a school’s graduates accepted and attending college, as proxies for determining school performance. Yet three decades of research have proven that there is no correlation between class sizes (or student-teacher ratio) and student achievement, it has been shown long ago that school accreditation is as shoddy as teacher credentialing, and levels of college acceptance doesn’t tell you much about whether kids have been provided the college-preparatory learning they need to actually graduate from college. Particularly for poor families, who are the primary users of voucher programs, there is a clear and present need for better performance data.

Then there’s the matter of transportation to and from school. This is a big problem. The high cost of sending kids outside of communities, both in terms of transportation and time, remains a challenge even for the most well-off of families. For the poorest families — especially single mothers who, as Dianne Piche of the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights points out, must also deal with childcare issues — transportation can be the biggest obstacle of all. Less-educated families surveyed by Lake and her team were 72 percent more-likely than better-educated counterparts to citee transportation as their key obstacle to accessing choice.

Transportation has long been given short shrift by reformers in their advocacy for choice. While some cities such as Indianapolis require charter schools to provide school buses for the kids attending them, this hasn’t been the norm. Nor are private schools participating in voucher programs required to assist with transportation for the kids they serve. Even traditional districts do badly when it comes to transportation; a child attending a magnet school far across town may not be able to get a school bus to take them there; if a child in Naptown lives in a zone served by Indianapolis Public Schools, but attends a school operated by Washington Township in the city’s North Side, her parents have to figure out how to get her there.

All these barriers are problematic for all families. But it is especially difficult for the poorest families to overcome. Which brings up an inconvenient fact for choice advocates and the school reform movement as a whole. As much as we proclaim that school choice is especially important for our poorest children, we have not done enough to build the infrastructure needed so that it works for them and their families. While some private-sector outfits such as GreatSchools, nonprofits such as Data Quality Campaign, and Parent Power groups such as the Connecticut Parents Union have worked hard to address the information issues, the rest of the movement has given these matters no shrift.

Lake and her team deserve plenty of credit for shining light on these important challenges for fulfilling the promise of school choice. They have also pointed out some other flaws in the thinking of choice advocates. For example, school choice groups such as the Center for Education Reform tout multiple authorizers as a key to expanding the number of charters serving communities and a way to get around traditional districts who want to kibosh choice. But as Lake and her team points out in the case of Detroit (where the nine charter oversight groups — including Detroit Public Schools — have done little to provide kids with high-quality options), what likely ends up happening is that shoddy school operators end up engaging in shopping for lax authorizers who will let them off the hook for failure and won’t think through community needs . The solution may not be to get rid of multiple authorizers, but limit who can actually be allowed to oversee charters as well as restrict districts from doing such work in the first place.

At the same time, there is one other aspect of choice that Lake and her colleagues fail to address: Giving families real power in shaping education for their children beyond just choosing schools. This includes enacting and leveraging Parent Trigger laws that allow for parents and caregivers to take over and overhaul traditional district schools within their own communities, as well as requiring charter school operators to form parent-led advisory boards who can actively shape how their kids are served on a day-to-day basis.

As reformers, we must keep in mind that even if choice fully flourishes — and even if data and transportation issues are fully addressed — families are still going to want high-quality school options in their own neighborhoods. Families want to send their kids to schools that are closest to their homes because it is ideal. Particularly for single mothers, who may often have kids in early childhood education centers at the same time their older kids are in K-12, the need for high quality schools right in the neighborhood is critical.

Just as importantly, the existing traditional district schools in their neighborhoods are longstanding institutions in their communities in which they have heavily invested (especially through their tax dollars). It makes perfect sense for those families to want to charge of neighborhood schools from central bureaucracies and teachers’ union affiliates distant from their concerns for their children, or at the very least, use Parent Trigger laws to become lead decision-makers in the school with the district paying heed.

Meanwhile reformers have to keep in mind that there are many families who want to play more-prominent roles in shaping curricula, instruction, and school climates. That’s the reason why the  nation’s homeschooling movement serves nearly as many children as the nation’s charter schools (if not more), and why online learning has become popular for others. Particularly in the case of black, Latino, Asian, American Indian and Native Hawaiian communities, they may want to transform climates in existing schools in order to provide both high-quality learning and environments in which their kids can strive for success alongside peers who look like them, their cultures are reinforced and respected, and . Parent Trigger laws can help advance systemic reform by addressing an aspect of education that many reformers, especially those from white households, don’t have to consider.

Gving families greater roles in the charter schools their kids attend is important because of their natural concern for the futures of their kids and communities. Especially for families in poor and minority communities who have seen generations of outsiders bearing gifts that do little to help them, the ability to help their kids choose their way to educational heaven (as legendary Morehouse College President Benjamin Mays would say) is expected and demanded. They don’t want to be passive players in education decision-making. More importantly, for school choice activists and other reformers, we can’t afford for them to be. Systemic reform and social change cannot be fully realized without the work of networks within communities that can make things happen.

It is all well and good to advance efforts to expand school choice. But all that work will be meaningless if reformers don’t also spend time on building up the infrastructure families need to help their kids reap the benefits.


July 11, 2014 standard

Last month, Dropout Nation discussed how the California Superior Court ruling in Vergara v. California would spur similar legal challenges to near-lifetime employment rules and other traditional teacher quality laws defended by traditionalists such as the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. Parent Power groups such as the New York City Parents Union, which had immediately announced after the ruling that it would file a Vergara suit, would especially pursue such litigation largely because, unlike other reform camps, they have long backed the idea of using the courts to advance systemic reform for our children.

So it wasn’t shocking that the New York City Parents Union moved last week to file its own Vergara tort in Richmond County Supreme Court, essentially dominating the education news cycle this Fourth of July weekend. After all, it is following up on the announcement made a week earlier by Campbell Brown’s group, Partnership for Educational Justice, to file its own tort. As you would expect, the suit demands that New York State’s tenure, teacher dismissal, and reverse-seniority layoff rules be struck down because they violate the Empire State constitution’s provision that all kids are provided sound basic education. In the process, the Big Apple Parent Power group is applying the state Court of Appeals’ ruling in Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. New York to force the Empire State to give districts the ability to provide all children with the high-quality teachers they need and deserve.

But the big story isn’t about the fact that this lawsuit was filed. As I mentioned, this was to be expected. No, the real story is how Parent Power activists who are the new voices in the school reform movement are taking their own steps to advance systemic reform, and aggressively use all tools at their disposal to transform education for all children. And it is time for the rest of the school reform movement, much of which has become a little too institutional, even a little too cautious, in their efforts, to be as bold in their actions as the parent activists fighting for the kids they love.

One of the more-interesting story lines unfolding in the fight over the reform of American public education is the emergence of families becoming what former National Urban League President Hugh Price calls impromptu leaders, agitating for the overhaul of traditional districts, pushing for the expansion of high-quality school choices, and even taking on traditional teacher compensation. Starting in the mid-1990s with Virginia Walden-Ford and her successful effort to spur the expansion of choice in Washington, D.C. (along with the overhaul of the traditional district), parents and caregivers working outside of think tanks and other institutions have been among the foremost reformers in the movement. It would be this earlier generation of Parent Power advocates who would make the concrete cases for why school choice was both beneficial to children and the moral obligation states owed to children condemned to failure clusters. And as homeschooling families who successfully provided their kids with high quality teaching and learning environments, these activists also showed what districts should be doing for all kids regardless of their learning issues if they were seriously about fulfilling their obligations.

What would really jump-start Parent Power activism was a move in 2009 that no one among the rest of the school reform movement would have thought possible. That’s when then-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and now-former State Sen. Gloria Romero, driven by the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top initiative, passed the nation’s first Parent Trigger law. Thanks to the law, families in the Golden State (as well as in the six other states that have since enacted some form of Parent Trigger provision) gained a new tool for forcing reform by overhauling the very schools within their own communities. Two years later, Parent Power activists began embracing the example set in the last century by civil rights activists and school funding advocates by filing their own lawsuits to challenge Zip Code Education policies such as school residency laws that restricted families from providing kids with high quality school options, and taking on near-lifetime employment laws that subject kids to laggard teaching.

The importance of Parent Trigger laws in giving families the ability to advance reform can be seen in places such as Adelanto, Calif., where families of kids attending schools such as the former Desert Trails Elementary successfully took control of the school and also forced out two board members of the district that formerly controlled it. Families of kids attending several schools operated by the Los Angeles Unified School District have also leveraged the Parent Trigger law to force the school operator into negotiations that have led to new reforms to the benefit of students attending them. Meanwhile the families of nine Southern California children, assisted by school reform outfit EdVoice, proved the importance of using lawsuits to advance reform — and challenge traditionalists — with last month’s ruling in Vergara. That decision sent a message to the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers that the status quo they defend won’t stand — and at the same time, showed other reform camps the importance of using the courts to help transform public education.

Certainly not all Parent Power groups think the same way. There are disagreements among them about such matters as Common Core. Their views about how to leverage Parent Trigger laws also differ. Parent Revolution, the California outfit that helped bring that state’s Parent Power law into reality, views it as a form of collective bargaining for families; this reflects the organization’s roots in the work of Green Dot Public Schools founder Steve Barr to help families in Los Angeles take over failing schools. Other Parent Power groups think of Parent Trigger laws in a different way, looking at the laws as direct democracy and localizing education decision-making; in short, a real family control over education that isn’t illusory like the local control that traditionalists and some movement conservatives defend.

There is also plenty of divide over how closely they should work with their fellow reformers and oppose traditionalists. The New York City Parents Union and its president Mona Davids, has confounded more-hardcore reformers by occasionally working with the AFT’s Big Apple local even as it has has fiercely battled the union over matters such as tenure and the new contract the latter struck with Big Apple Mayor Bill de Blasio. The Connecticut Parents Union, on the other hand, is as fierce a foe of the AFT and the NEA as they come; but its president (and Dropout Nation Contributing Editor) Gwen Samuel is skeptical of the propensity of some reformers to be as disdainful as traditionalists about the role families (especially those from poor and minority households) should play in education decision-making.

What Parent Power groups do share in common is their bold willingness to embrace new approaches to advancing systemic reform even as other camps within the movement — especially Beltway think-tankers and institution-oriented types — express initial skepticism at every turn. This isn’t surprising. Unlike other players in the school reform movement, Parent Power activists are grassroots-oriented players, often coming from backgrounds outside of education and policymaking circles, and have actually have dealt day-to-day with traditional districts which have treated them as little more than nuisances and pests. This gives Parent Power activists a much more personal perspective on the underlying causes of the nation’s education crisis, a lower tolerance for silver-bullet thinking on how to deal with these issues, and ultimately, a greater willingness to use any tactic possible to give all children high-quality education.

The fact that Parent Power activists are working on the ground with families with whom they share similar experiences, or have spent years learning how to master working with communities rightfully skeptical of outsiders, also gives them a perspective that other reformers lack. They have long ago learned that success on in communities involves listening attentively to — and addressing — concerns, providing lots of resources (including time) in order for people to help themselves, solving problems quickly (often without a plan), and giving families real power to shape the direction of reform in ways that fit the contexts in which they live. This is the hard work with which Beltway reformers and others more-comfortable with crafting legislation often struggle.

Then there’s the reality that for Parent Power activists, reform is no bloodless exercise. It isn’t some glib Mike Petrilli chat-piece or a Rick Hess policy tome or Jay P. Greene write-a-thon. After all, it is their children, the only kids they will ever have, who are the ones subjected to the worst American public education offers. It is their young black sons who are the ones most-likely to end up being placed into special ed ghettos even when they only need extra reading instruction. It is their Latino daughters who are kept out of college-preparatory math and science courses by teachers and guidance counselors who think they are incapable of mastering those subjects. They, along with their relatives, neighbors, and friends who are denied the high-quality data they need to make smarter decisions for their kids, the ones that researchers such as Peter McDermott, Julia Johnson Rothenberg, and Karyn Lacey have documented as being treated as afterthoughts and worse by traditional districts, the people who need school choice the most and the least likely to have it.

This makes sense. When you are the afflicted and not the comfortable, giving your children every opportunity to move into the middle class is your greatest concern. You don’t really care about treatises on whether families are best being customers of schools, or ideological debates over the value of Common Core, or pablum from school choice activists with jobs to protect about why state tests shouldn’t be used to hold accountable private schools taking vouchers for serving kids, or if an Obama Administration plan to address suspensions is somehow a punishment to traditional district schools that have been failing kids for decade after decade. You care about giving all children the best chances at better lives- and using every solution available to make it possible.

This is what drives Parent Power activists and makes them key players in driving reform for all children. In fact, all reformers should embrace Parent Power thinking in their work. This means being as focused on building grassroots support for advancing reform as lobbying statehouses and launching new reform groups. It involves being willing to leverage any new solution for transforming education and providing all kids with high-quality education. This includes becoming the afflicted in mindset and being willing to afflict the comfortable in all aspects of our work. And it must mean taking reform personally because the children for which we are helping are living, breathing people who look like our ourselves when we were young as well as our kids at home.

The school reform movement can use more of the boldness shown by Parent Power activists such as those in New York City and elsewhere. Because our children cannot wait another day for high-quality education.

June 25, 2014 standard

As your editor noted earlier this month in the commentary on the impact of the Vergara v. California ruling, one of the upshots of California Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu’s decision to eviscerate the Golden State’s laws granting teachers near-lifetime employment is that reformers in other states will likely file similar torts. For one, the ruling, along with arguments made by the Vergara families in the suit, can serve as a road map for their suits. There’s also the fact that nearly all states have equal protection clauses in their constitutions, and have been affected by school funding lawsuits that have determined that state responsibility for a child’s education goes beyond providing access to a classroom.

School reform and Parent Power outfits in New York State such as the New York City Parents Union have already announced that their plans to file their own Vergara suits. So no one should be surprised by this week’s announcement by former CNN anchor Campbell Brown’s Partnership for Educational Justice that it would help six New York State families file their own tort in the coming weeks. Not only do the families have a strong chance of winning their tort, a victory may further galvanize reformers around using the courts to advance systemic overhauls.

As in the case of the Vergara families, the Partnership for Education Justice’s six families will charge that the Empire State’s tenure laws, which grant near-lifetime employment to teachers after just three years on the job, violates the sound basic education and equal protection clauses of the state constitution. This is because near-lifetime employment, along with the state’s teacher dismissal laws, subject  children to low-quality, educationally neglectful teachers who can rarely be removed from their jobs.

Just as importantly, the lawsuit will also take aim at New York State’s reverse-seniority (or last in-first out) layoff rules, which force districts to sack younger teachers regardless of their success in improving student achievement while protecting veteran counterparts regardless of how well or poorly they do in instruction. Particularly for poor and minority kids, last in-first out layoff rules affect their academic (and ultimately, economic) prospects the hardest because they often lose out on high-quality younger teachers who are the most-likely to work in the schools they attend.

What makes the Partnership families’ possible suit likely to succeed is the successful school funding lawsuit against the state led by the now-defunct Campaign for Fiscal Equity. Besides New York State’s own constitutional requirement to provide “common schools”, the state’s high court, the Court of Appeals, ruled in Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. New York that the state is required to provide “sound basic education” for kids beyond providing them with classrooms and books. Based on the CFE ruling, reformers can argue that the state is violating its duty to kids by keeping in place the collection of laws at the heart of making teaching the most-comfortable profession in the public sector (and a key aspect of teachers’ union influence).

The Partnership lawsuit comes after a decade of fitful efforts by reformers in the Empire State to overhaul teacher quality.

Back in 2007, then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer convinced the legislature to pass a law requiring new teachers seeking tenure to prove that they successfully use standardized test scores and other forms of student performance data in shaping their classroom instruction. A year later, the American Federation of Teachers’ Empire State affiliate, New York State United Teachers, successfully pushed legislators and Spitzer’s successor, David Paterson, to roll back that law without so much as a committee hearing on the matter.

Over the past few years, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the state’s Board of Regents, and Education Commissioner John King have pressed forward with the state’s new teacher evaluation system, under which student test score growth data must account for 40 percent of teacher performance assessment. But battle between AFT affiliates and districts in New York City and elsewhere have slowed the pace of implementation. The move last week by legislators to do the bidding of the AFT by not allowing for test score data from Common Core-aligned tests to be used in the evaluations is another set-back in efforts to address the low quality of teaching in the Empire State’s districts, especially the clusters of failure mills in cities such as Buffalo and Yonkers.

Meanwhile in New York City, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg spent much of his tenure pushing to get rid of lousy teachers working in Big Apple schools. Some of his efforts — including withholding tenure from newly-hired teachers performing poorly in classrooms — have resulted in fewer laggards staying in Big Apple classrooms. But the state’s teacher dismissal law, which effectively gives the AFT’s Big Apple local power over the process by essentially allowing it to pick arbitrators in termination cases, has resulted in even criminally-abusive teachers keeping their jobs.

This is an issue about which Brown knows all too well. Over the past four years, she has publicly sparred with the AFT local, the United Federation of Teachers, and even the national AFT’s leadership (most-notably, union boss Randi Weingarten) over the union’s defense of incompetent and criminally-abusive teachers. This included an infamous battle between Brown and the union two years ago that featured then-New York City local demagogue Leo Casey (now head of the AFT’s Albert Shanker Institute) accusing her of committing “blood libel” against teachers.

Empire State legislators, more-concerned about their allegiances to the AFT than about the futures of children, will not do more to advance teacher quality reform. Neither will Bloomberg’s successor, Bill de Blasio, who is more-concerned with toadying to traditionalists than fulfilling his obligation to kids as Big Apple Mayor.

This is where Partnership’s possible lawsuit comes in. By using the courts to take on policies and practices that violate the constitutional rights of children — especially those from poor and minority backgrounds — to high-quality education, reformers are embracing the examples set by civil rights activists of the last century, who successfully challenged Jim Crow segregation laws that harmed an earlier generation of black and brown children. At the same time, by working through the courts, which are charged by federal and state constitutions with interpreting laws (and thus, rejecting legislation that violates the principles contained within them), reformers are also holding legislators accountable for providing high-quality teaching to kids in the districts and schools they oversee.

Meanwhile the Partnership suit could further similar torts in other states because New York isn’t like the 15 states in the union whose constitutions require state governments with “the duty” to “encourage, by all suitable means, moral, intellectual, scientific, and agricultural improvement”. Since many states don’t have such constitutional requirements on the books, reformers will have to look to other clauses in state constitutions, along with school funding rulings, to build their cases for overturning near-lifetime employment rules. If the Partnership tort succeeds, it gives reformers an even better road-map for advancing their cause.

As Frank Sinatra would sing, if reformers can make their case in the Empire State, they can make their cases everywhere. It’s time to do so for our kids.

March 4, 2014 standard

There is nothing surprising about New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s decision last week to rescind a deal struck last year to let the Success chain of charter schools to move three of its schools into traditional district buildings. Dropout Nation tried last year to give de Blasio the benefit of the doubt over his anti-charter school sentiments. But since moving into Gracie Mansion this past January, de Blasio’s moves — including a proposal to divert $210 million in funds slated for charter school construction projects, and the implementation of a formal ban on allowing co-locations — has all but proven that the mayor intends of putting the kibosh on the expansion of school choice throughout the city.

Certainly de Blasio’s decision, which damages the educational prospects of 7,000 children attending the three schools, belies his proclamations that he wants to build brighter futures for all Big Apple kids. At the same time, charter school advocates and other reformers have to do more than bemoan and protest de Blasio’s move. They must move boldly and decisively to build the political and financial support needed to advance systemic reform in spite of the mayor’s opposition. This includes moving away from space-sharing deals between charters and traditional district schools and toward more-sustainable approaches for obtaining the buildings they need to serve children in their care.

The move to rescind Success’ space-sharing agreement with the city came amid de Blasio’s move to review predecessor Bloomberg’s move last year to allow 17 charters (along with 32 traditional district schools) to share space in half-empty school buildings. The mayor and his chancellor, Carmen Fariña, decided to keep agreements with 14 of the charters in place (including five of the eight schools Success planned on opening and moving into the buildings). But the administration moved to rescind a deal with Success for three schools. Why? Supposedly because Success’ co-location plans for the three schools scored poorly in four categories used to judge the space-sharing arrangements — including whether the schools (which would have served less than 250 children) could provide what the city considers to be needed support services for them, and whether the city would have had to spend too much on construction (and thus, use dollars de Blasio is designating for his Pre-K initiative) to accommodate the charters.

Given the subjectivity of de Blasio’s criteria for judging the already-approved space sharing arrangements, it’s a shock than any of the 17 schools were approved at all. But then, that’s the point. By subjecting the plans to another review, de Blasio is making clear that he will use any tool at his disposal to put an end to charter school expansion. The fact that de Blasio took aim at Success, one of the city’s  biggest charter operators in the city and one of the most politically-vocal to boot, is a way for the mayor to put a chilling effect on any opposition to his plans from others in the charter school movement. Small charter operators who lack the fundraising and political means to challenge de Blasio, are now in the unenviable position of having their most-influential opponent also be chief executive of their landlord.

But the political is also the personal. In targeting Success, de Blasio also deals a blow to Moskowitz, a sharp-elbowed rival of the mayor dating back to the days when both sat on the Big Apple’s city council (and the education committee Moskowitz chaired). Since June, when de Blasio called out Moskowitz by name as one of the charter school operators he thought shouldn’t “get free rent” in city school buildings, the two have gone at each other publicly; de Blasio is likely still miffed over the move by Success and other charters last October to organize a rally calling him out for opposing choice for poor and minority children he claims to want to help. Sure, de Blasio couldn’t outright rescind all eight of the space sharing deals already struck with Success. But in tossing out three schools, the mayor has made it clear that he will work diligently to toss big-named charters out of traditional district buildings. More importantly, he has also signaled that this is the first step towards evicting all charters by the end of his tenure.

But reformers can’t just be fixated on de Blasio’s latest decision. The fact that several city council members chided the mayor for keeping arrangements in place with 14 of the 17 charters reviewed should also be troubling. Why? Because mayoral control of traditional districts also means that city legislators will also play their parts in structuring education policy and school operations. With de Blasio lacking unquestioned support from all sides for his education agenda, the council will play an even more-prominent role in education decision-making than it did during Bloomberg’s tenure. This plays well into the hands of the AFT affiliate, whose ground game has always been stronger than that of reformers. After losing court battles it lodge with the help of the NAACP’s New York State affiliate to stop Bloomberg’s space-sharing arrangements with charters, the AFT has spent plenty (including $450,726 last year through its super-PAC on 34 council races) to gain support within the city council. One can imagine AFT local boss Michael Mulgrew, currently in a (so far successful) battle with with AFT Empire State boss Richard Iannuzzi over control of the state affiliate, will quietly push council members to pass a bill that will end existing charter co-locations within the next year.

Yet charter school operators and advocates in the Big Apple can’t just worry about the politics. The moves by de Blasio serve to remind them of the reality that charter schools cannot continue to be dependent on space sharing arrangements with traditional districts.

Sure, the arrangements have been necessary in order to expand high-quality school options for children, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds in Harlem and the rest of the city still served poorly by the (slowly improving) traditional district. After all, unlike their colleagues in other cities such as Indianapolis and New Orleans, charter school operators in New York struggle mightily to find affordable real estate that can serve students properly. Given that charters are public schools (and, thus, are as entitled as traditional districts to using taxpayer-funded buildings), and the reality that many schools in Manhattan and the Bronx operate at less than full capacity, it just makes sense for charters and traditional district schools to share space.

But as de Blasio’s move has shown, such arrangements can expose charters to the kind of arbitrary and capricious decision-making that makes it difficult for operators to provide high-quality teaching and curricula to the children they serve. It can also be damaging to efforts to expand choice overall, creating skittishness among families, who count on schools to be stable places in which their kids will learn. More importantly, by counting on the Big Apple to provide space, charter school operators aren’t working diligently as their counterparts in other cities on developing funding sources (including dedicated state dollars for capital expenditures and donations from philanthropists) they can count on for constructing buildings they control.

Once again, it is important for charter school advocates and other reformers in the New York City to once again make the case for systemic reform — and look to other approaches to transforming education in big cities — regardless of who occupies City Hall. This includes working hard in the grassroots, especially with community groups, immigrant households and single-parent families in the city who benefit the most from charter school expansion, to put pressure on de Blasio and city council members to attend to their concerns. Groups such as the New York branch of StudentsFirst should be organizing voter registration drive right now. Passing a Parent Trigger law at the state level, which would allow families to take control of school buildings and launch their own charters (as well as work with existing operators, if they so choose) should also be on the agenda.

At the same time, Big Apple reformers must work with charter school operators to embark on a capital campaign to acquire existing buildings, construct new schools (when possible), and ultimately, move out of traditional district spaces. One can easily imagine the Walton Family Foundation teaming up with outfits such as Building Hope, an organization working throughout the country on charter school building efforts, to embark on developing a school campus in South Ozone Park where several charters can share space. Lobbying Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other state leaders to provide dedicated funding to charters for their capital activities — or even create a fund that lends money to charters for construction activities — also makes sense.

Charter advocates within the city should also embrace online learning options as a way to deal with space issues. In an age in which virtual learning is possible and can be provided with high quality, especially in New York City (where broadband is plentiful), there is no reason why charter school operators continue to think about education as being something provided only in buildings.

Mayor de Blasio’s move against charter schools offers reformers opportunities to sustain reform. Now it is time for them to embrace it.

January 17, 2014 standard

Two years ago, your editor reminded reformers — especially school choice activists within the movement — about the need to learn from the lessons of scandals that rocked Florida’s McKay voucher program as well as controversies affecting charter schools and the for-profit college sector. Because vouchers and voucher-like tax credits, like charters, and other forms of choice, are relatively new aspects of American public education, they were vulnerable to the same charges of low academic quality and fiscal mismanagement leveled by traditionalists opposed to expanding options. Requiring private schools accepting children using vouchers to participate in state testing regimes — something already done by schools run by the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches — would be a key step towards assuring taxpayers that children were receiving the high-quality education they deserve, provide families with the data on school performance they need to make smart decisions, and ultimately, help reformers make the case for expanding school options for all kids.

Since then, Indiana has embraced the approach suggested by Dropout Nation in its launch of the nation’s largest school voucher program while Louisiana has also made participation in state testing a key part of its expanded choice regime. And this week, in the release of a new report on improving accountability for school choice, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute has smartly embraced this approach. Yet the very idea of school choice programs (and the private schools who take taxpayer dollars) being subjected to the same levels of accountability we demand of traditional districts is anathema to some school choice purists — most-notably Jason Bedrick of the Cato Institute’s school reform team, University of Arkansas’ Jay P. Greene, the otherwise-sensible Robert Enlow and Greg Forster at the Milton & Rose D. Friedman Foundation, and Matthew Ladner of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education. Their arguments against accountability not only fail to stand up to intellectual and moral scrutiny, but actually give traditionalists reasons for opposing further expansion of choice altogether. School choice cannot expand or succeed without strong accountability measures that can help children attain high-quality options that help them gain the knowledge they need for lifelong success.

Fordham’s report, which was written by Adam Emerson, the think tank’s now-former point man on school choice, comes amid last month’s report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office that D.C.’s Opportunity voucher program and its operator, the D.C. Children and Youth Investment Trust Corporation, couldn’t verify if schools looking to serve voucher students were eligible to participate in the program, as well didn’t provide families with timely and up-to-date information on private schools so that they could at least shop for options. Those revelations cast an unfortunate pall over the program’s overall success in helping kids in the nation’s capital escape failing traditional district schools, and that of other programs across the nation. So one wouldn’t think Fordham’s recommendations would be considered all that controversial.

Requiring students receiving vouchers to take state tests is the norm for voucher programs in Indiana and Louisiana and required by voucher programs serving Milwaukee and Cleveland, two of the oldest in the nation. As Greene’s University of Arkansas colleague, Patrick Wolf, determined in a 2012 study of Milwaukee’s pioneering voucher program, this move, along with other accountability measures and the choice program’s effort to expand high-quality options, helped children participating in the program achieve “significantly higher levels of reading gains than their carefully matched peers in MPS after four years”. Same is true of Fordham’s recommendation that states publicly disclose the results so that families and taxpayers can know exactly how kids are learning. Such a step will help families make smart decisions about school options based on how well children — especially those from poor and minority backgrounds — are being served.

Meanwhile the think tank’s recommendation that states rank schools serving children receiving vouchers on the quality of their outcomes (and ultimately, weed out those operators failing children) should hardly be cause for controversy. It is nothing more than an extension of efforts within the school reform movement to weed out (and shut down) failing traditional public schools that harm the futures of children, as well as efforts among charter school advocates within the movement to weed out similarly laggard operators. Identifying faltering private schools and barring them from accepting children receiving vouchers wouldn’t lead to them being shut down; after all, they can still continue to peddle their services. But keeping them from receiving taxpayer funding for shoddy instruction and curricula would do plenty for all children.

Yet purists among school choice activists within the movement are aghast that Fordham would even offer such recommendations. Why? For one, there’s the belief that accountability will somehow stifle diversity and innovation in curricula and instruction in private schools. This is a view similar to those offered by opponents of Common Core reading and math standards, a group that includes Cato’s education crew and the Friedman Foundation. As Cato’s Bedrick declares, requiring private schools serving children receiving vouchers to participate in state testing will “make it all but impossible for schools to experiment with new ways of tailoring education to the needs of individual children”.

School choice can help all kids succeed. But not without accountability measures to weed out faltering schools and data that families can use to make smarter decisions.

But this argument doesn’t hold up. For one, Bedrick and his allies can’t offer any evidence that test participation requirements by existing voucher regimes are stifling diversity and innovation. Why? Because it isn’t so. Catholic schools, which participate in state tests, continue to provide high-quality religious-based teaching and curricula throughout the nation, especially to poor and minority children in the nation’s big cities. If anything, testing requirements along with other accountability measures, actually help children in voucher programs attain high-quality education without stifling diversity. This is clear from Wolf’s study of the accountability measures developed for Milwaukee’s voucher program, and clear so far from Indiana’s own voucher initiative.

As for innovation?  Certainly there is the amazing work of the Kamehameha Schools in Hawaii in developing culturally-based education for the Native Hawaiian children it serves. But as your editor noted two years ago in a commentary on Common Core, there’s not much of it going on, especially among private schools, in the first place. This lack of innovation cannot be blamed on voucher and tax credit programs; after all, a mere 245,854 children are served by the programs, according to the Alliance for School Choice. Nor is lack of innovation necessarily a bad thing; after all, novel developments in curricula and instruction don’t necessarily lead to improvements in student achievement. But for school choice purists such as Bedrick to argue that requiring private schools serving voucher students to take state tests somehow stifles non-existent innovation is intellectual hogwash. The fact that private schools don’t have to participate in school choice programs at all if testing and other accountability requirements bother them also makes the argument offered by Bedrick and his allies completely specious.

If anything, this requirement, along with other accountability measures for school choice programs, can advance innovation by providing much-needed data on school performance that can be used by school operators to figure out what works and areas of need to help all kids succeed. A private school headmaster, for example, could use state test data along with other data gleaned from diagnostic assessments a school may already use to restructure how teachers are working in classrooms. Entrepreneurial teachers and school leaders, both in private as well as in traditional public and charter settings, can also use the data to launch new schools that serve particular groups of children served by voucher programs.

But this disdain for Fordham’s recommendations among school choice purists isn’t shocking. From their perspective, accountability should be something done by families choosing schools, in short, voting with their feet. Enlow, in particular, argues that families can already make smart decisions without any kind of accountability or school performance data in place for their use. How? Citing data from Friedman Foundation’s recent study on how families in school choice programs make decisions, Enlow essentially declares that families could simply use metrics such as class size ratios, information on school accreditation, even the percentage of a school’s graduates accepted and attending college, as proxies for accountability.

Yet Enlow and his allies know all too well that these input measures are insufficient for use by families for evaluating school options, much less for any form of accountability. Why? Because they don’t show the most-important outcome: How schools are improving student achievement and preparing kids for lifelong success in adulthood. Three decades of research has long ago shown that here is no correlation between smaller class sizes (or student-teacher ratio) and student achievement. The fact that school accreditation is as shoddy as teacher credentialing also makes it insufficient for judging the ability of schools to improve achievement. As for the percentage of students accepted and attending college? This tells families nothing because what really matters is the percentage of kids who actually graduate in three-to-six years; a school can do a poor job of preparing kids for higher ed completion and still send high numbers of kids to college.

Meanwhile Enlow fails to admit is the underlying reason why families judge schools by these measures: Because they don’t have high-quality data on school performance — including test score growth data and even data on how teachers improve student achievement — that they need for better decision-making. Certainly families can make smart decisions if they are provided comprehensive-yet-simple data on school performance. But this cannot be achieved without objective measures of how well schools are serving children. State testing regimes (including analysis of student test data through Value-Added Measurement) are the most-objective and best way to measure school, teacher, and student achievement. Given the high stakes for the futures of children that come with school decisions, Enlow and his allies are being irresponsible in advocating for the continued use of shoddy information that is useless for families, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds who need school choice and high-quality data the most.

But it isn’t just about families. What Enlow, Bedrick, Ladner, and Forster fail to acknowledge is that the expansion of school choice cannot continue without assuring taxpayers that the programs will be operated effectively and that they will do a better job than traditional districts of improving student achievement. Sure, three decades of research clearly shows that expanding school choice improves student achievement. But as I noted two years ago, school choice isn’t an unqualified success. When choice programs aren’t subjected to strong accountability and oversight, they become vulnerable to scandals that do damage to the cause of expanding school choice, even if they are isolated incidents compared to their overwhelming benefits. Especially given that choice programs are relatively new players in American public education, and thus vulnerable to attacks from traditionalists, choice activists, along with the rest of the reform movement, should do all they can to ensure that the initiatives are working to the benefit of the kids, families, and taxpayers they serve.

More importantly, strong accountability is at the heart of the school reform movement itself. The school reform movement has long ago showed that it isn’t enough for taxpayers and families to trust traditional districts. Demanding that all school operators provide high-quality instruction and curricula to our children is critical to stemming an education crisis that condemns far too many kids to the abyss. We cannot demand accountability for traditional districts and not for choice programs. It is simply intellectually, ethically, and morally unacceptable for school choice purists to tell taxpayers to simply trust that the programs are working properly. It also makes taking such a stance makes school choice purists no different than traditionalists who make the same arguments to defend failing traditional district schools.

Reformers shouldn’t have to save the expansion of school choice from true-believers more-concerned with dogmatically defending their favored reform than with implementing the kind of accountability necessary for ensuring children are being properly served — and ultimately, the futures of children for whom they say they are concerned. Bedrick, Enlow, Ladner, Forster and other school choice purists should stop arguing against Fordham’s sensible recommendations, and should work on developing new accountability measures that can bolster support for expanding school choice all kids deserve.

October 8, 2013 standard

A myth that remains widely-held in American public education is that families, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds, are not motivated to play active and powerful roles in education for their children.  Especially for traditionalists, this perception that lackadaisical and unmotivated parents are a reason behind low student achievement allows them to excuse the systemic problems that are behind the nation’s education crisis.

Yet as seen today in New York City, where 17,500 parents and other family members of children attending charter schools held a march to put mayoral aspirant Bill de Blasio on notice that they will not tolerate his declarations that he would effectively kibosh the expansion of school choice, the myth of unmotivated families is pure bunk. As you would expect, Michael Mulgrew, the president of the American Federation of Teachers’ Big Apple local, the United Federation of Teachers, is sniffing at the event, claiming that is merely a front for charter school operators such as Success Academies, the outfit run by former New York City councilwoman Evan Moskowitz. Your editor would expect nothing less from him. But Mulgrew has a conveniently short memory. Two years ago, families and charter school operators held protests against the AFT and the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People after the two teamed up on a lawsuit against to stop Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s practice of allowing charters to share space with traditional district schools in half-empty spaces. The battles between the NAACP and charter school parents in particular, would be particularly embarrassing to traditionalists after incidents such as NAACP official Hazel Dukes accused charter school parents were “doing the business of slave masters”.

Meanwhile there are other Parent Power efforts happening throughout the city and the nation. Some, such as an event held in August by the New York branch of StudentsFirst, are being held by school reform outfits who realize the need for families to play their rightful roles as lead decision-makers in education for their kids. Others such as those held by the New York City Parents Union are efforts arising from families who have become reformers because, to use the old phrase about former liberals who became conservatives, their children have been proverbially robbed of high-quality teaching and curricula. Meanwhile across the country in California, families such as those who sent their kids to the former Desert Trails Elementary in Adelanto have seized control of failing schools thanks to the Golden State’s Parent Trigger law, and began the hard work of transforming failure mills into cultures of genius. And in other states, emerging Parent Power groups — from those pushing for the end of school residency laws and other Zip Code Education policies that have made parents criminals for daring to provide their kids with high-quality schools, to those expressing wrongheaded opposition to the implementation of Common Core reading and math standards in 45 states and the District of Columbia — are showing that reform is possible when families stand up for their kids.

What is clear from these experiences is that families can be lead decision-makers in education when they are provided the data and knowledge needed to help their children, as well as the ability to choose high-quality opportunities or even overhaul the failing schools within their neighborhoods. The experience of the charter school and Parent Power movements — and before that, of the Catholic diocesan schools that were the main alternatives to traditional public education in the last century — has proven that choice and power  are both amazing motivators; families will do all they can for their kids if given knowledge and options. Especially as families realize that the two other myths American public education has perpetuated over the past two centuries — that a child can be sent to any teacher or to any school and they will get a high-quality education — isn’t so, and that the quality of instruction can vary not from school to school and, more importantly, even from classroom to classroom.

Families of children attending the former Desert Trails Elementary in Adelanto, Calif., took power — and began the overhaul of the failing school.

It is also clear that American public education does plenty to make it difficult for parents to do so.

As Peter McDermott and Julia Johnson Rothenberg of the Sage Colleges have noted in their research on school engagement, urban and low-income parents often perceive schools to be unwelcoming and interactions with teachers to be “painful encounters.” Certainly some of this has to do with the negative experiences these parents have had with schools — especially those failure mills that they once attended and to which their children now go. But it is also reflective of the reality that we have far too many teachers and school leaders who look down on poor urban parents who may not be capable of helping their kids because of their own learning issues; who are hostile to those families who want to take an active role in shaping the education their kids receive in school; and would rather keep those families servile.

But it isn’t just a problem for urban families alone. The penchant for many teachers and administrators to treat families as nuisances and afterthoughts is as strong in suburbia — where parents supposedly have the clout to force change — as it is in big-city districts. From inconveniently-scheduled parent-teacher conferences, to the lack of meaningful communication about student progress until it is far too late to help kids succeed, to the lack of information for black and Latino families on their options for preparing their kids for success in school and in life (including  Advanced Placement courses and dual-credit programs that allow them to take community college courses that they can use for getting ready for the rigors of higher education), districts also act, both deliberately and otherwise, to disengage families from taking action for their children.

Meanwhile mothers and fathers lack access to high-quality data that is both comprehensive and yet simple to understand in order to make smart decisions. School data remains a black box of sorts, driven by compliance as well as the interests of districts and teachers’ unions to hide evidence of the failures of American public education rather than by the need to give parents information they need to make smart choices.  Organizations such as and the Education Consumers Foundation are helping to make school data more transparent and easy to use; the efforts of the Data Quality Campaign are working to improve the quality of state and district data systems. But much remains to be done on overhauling how data is collected and provided. And even when the data is available, state laws, the opposition of teachers unions to releasing data, and now, the Obama Administration’s effort to eviscerate the No Child Left Behind Act and its accountability measures (which provided data that has helped advance reforms in the last decade) have made it harder for families to get the data they need.

Families also need a wide array of high-quality opportunities both within and outside of their communities. But the fact is that only 42 states allow for the existence of charter schools; even in those states, the fact that traditional districts are given the authority to decide whether charters can exist, an approach akin to allowing McDonald’s to decide if a Wendy’s can open next door, means that choice is often restricted, especially in suburbia. The fact that only 10 states have school voucher programs, 11 states have voucher-like tax credits, and only seven states have Parent Trigger laws on the books, also limits the ability of families to take power in education. Particularly for the families of the 38 percent of black students and 33 percent of Latino students forced by Zip Code Education policies (and systemic decay within districts) to attend dropout factories, there are few options to escape failure.

Meanwhile families must also know what their children need to know in order to succeed in adulthood. They need to know what a child should know by third grade. They must understand that kindergartners should know by the end of the school year that numbers represent quantities. And they need to know 40 percent of all students will come into kindergarten with some form of reading deficiency no matter what families do or don’t do on the literacy front — and that schools should be equipped to help provide kids with intensive reading remediation instead of putting them into special education ghettos that condemn their futures. But districts do little to inform families even when parents dare to ask. [By the wayThis reality is why Dropout Nation helps families through its Five Questions Every Parent Should Ask podcast series as well as the new collection of podcasts on Common Core standards.]

But as today’s demonstration has shown — and as it can be seen throughout the nation — families are willing to beat back against those barriers when provided the tools to do so. In fact, most families are willing to take on the responsibility of transforming education if informed and empowered. This is where the school reform movement must step up. It starts by expanding all forms of school choice as well as advancing the passage of Parent Trigger laws that give families the ability to change the direction of the lives of their kids and the communities in which they live. It continues by providing families with high-quality data (including information on teacher performance) that they can use to make smart decisions; this includes ending the Obama Administration’s No Child waiver gambit and building upon the sensible approach to accountability brought to bear on American public education 11 years ago through the passage of No Child itself. It also means building up online and physical libraries of information that families can use in order to know what to expect from teachers, school leaders, and others who serve their children. And it means standing up with families and with others in the grassroots at all times.

What happened in New York City today was another reminder that families will stand up for the children they love. As with so many other failed theories and practices in American public education, the myth of unmotivated parents should be tossed into history’s ashbin.

Photo courtesy of Richard Barth of the Knowledge is Power Program.