This week in school choice: Partisans

Are meaningful improvements in student achievement enough to make parental choice and education reform politically safe?

The battle to raise a cap on the number of charter schools allowed in Massachusetts suggests the answer is no.

The conflict concerns a relatively simple question that will appear on the Massachusetts ballot in November: should the state lift the cap on the number of charter school seats it permits to allow 12 new or expanded charters a year? But there’s nothing simple about this fight, which is ripe with national implications and likely to draw in national combatants. The stakes: If the teachers’ unions and district superintendents can stop charter schools in Massachusetts — the state that boaststhe highest performing charters in the country — then charters are at risk everywhere.

See also: The progressive case for raising the cap.


Republicans need a positive, but conservative, way to talk about education policy that doesn’t involve growing federal authority. School choice seems like a winning option. Ohio might not have been an ideal place to spread that message, though.

Don’t give up on Democrats when it comes to education reform… but it may be time to go on the offensive. Keep an eye on the DNC meetings in Philly next week.

Is this the end of ed reform, or at least the bipartisan consensus supporting it?

The problems with virtual charter schools may suggest deeper problems with the K-12 public education system, from the way schools are funded to the ways they’re held accountable. If students’ needs aren’t being met elsewhere, perhaps something needs to change.

Thinking about education innovation from a global perspective.

Calculating the fiscal impact of Indiana’s school voucher program proves difficult.

Something’s going on with Colorado charter schools. Their national NAEP results look quite good. Their state test results do, too. Chalkbeat Colorado breaks it down: Colorado’s charter schools are more diverse, performing better and paying teachers less, report shows.

A better way to think about for-profit charter schools.

A range of voices take a nuanced look at the charter school discipline debate.

Charter school parents don’t get a say in a St. Louis funding lawsuit, a judge decides.

Do Nevada’s education savings accounts undermine public schools, or the very idea of public education?

Special needs ESAs keep drawing new students in Mississippi.

The complex calculations around special needs students, private school vouchers and federal rights.

Breaking down the tribal walls: My Mom Was A Unionized Public School Teacher. That’s Why I’m A Reformer.

Tweets of the Week

After a summer hiatus, This Week in School Choice, our weekly compilation of news and analysis, is back. Please send tips, links, suggestions and feedback to tpillow[at]sufs[dot]org.


Parental choice, innovation and systemic education reform

Embracing technology and launching new schools  haven’t fueled the kind of innovation that will actually lead to meaningful improvements in the education system as a whole — at least not on their own, a new article published this week by the World Economic Forum argues.

Michael Barber,  the chief education adviser at Pearson UK, and Joel Klein, the former chief of New York City public schools,  outline a “playbook” for transforming school systems. The two authors, the chair and vice-chair of the forum’s Global Agenda Council on Education, look at systemic education reform from a global perspective, drawing on case studies from around the world.

They write:

[G]ood ideas are not enough. … So the central question is perhaps not the extent of innovation, but its quality and speed from idea to impact. Innovation is happening, but too little of it is focused at the heart of learning and when it does it spreads too slowly.

Investments in technology have largely automated existing pedagogies or delivered school efficiency savings outside of the core of learning and teaching. Where new school providers have entered systems, the innovation is often more about school marketing than reimaging the learning model. This prompts the question of how to spark the right type of innovation in education.

The authors suggest education leaders and policymakers should think about the whole system, and set clear goals — like achieving 85 percent literacy, or increasing the amount of time schools devote to instruction (as Chile did during a wave of reforms that began in the ’90s). Then, they should give educators the means, and the freedom, to meet them.  Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: Turnaround plans, contract talks, safety and more

florida-roundup-logoTurnaround plans: The Polk County School District’s plan to turn around five struggling middle schools is rejected by the Florida Board of Education. The board criticized the district’s plan to retain some of the principals and low-rated teachers. Plans for underachieving schools in Duval and Orange counties were given conditional approvals, though the board said part of the Duval plan broke a state rule about school closures, and plans from Lee and St. Lucie counties were approved. Politico Florida. Florida Times-Union. TCPalm.

Contract negotiations: Marion County school officials are proposing a raise in pay for school employees. The raise is subject to negotiation with the district’s unions, but the district’s plan is to spend $3.6 million more in salaries than it did last year. The tentative budget submitted by Superintendent George Tomyn would increase 2.5 percent, to $519.3 million. Ocala Star Banner. The Volusia County School District reaches an agreement with bus drivers, cafeteria workers and other support staff. They will receive an average raise of 6.25 percent this year and 2.5 percent next year. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

School safety: U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, D-Tallahassee, introduces a bill in Congress that would place tech-forward alert systems in school classrooms. The The “Securing Our Schools Act” allows the Justice Department to award districts extra dollars for the systems, which would be evaluated for effectiveness after a year. Tallahassee Democrat.

Longer school days: The Palm Beach County School District is considering extending the elementary school day. Superintendent Robert Avossa says the six-hour day might have to be bumped by a half-hour to improve student performance. Palm Beach Post. Continue Reading →


Florida Opportunity Scholarships are back

After a one-year hiatus, Florida’s public school choice program for students in schools with low academic ratings is active again.

The Opportunity Scholarship Program allows students in schools that received an F or three consecutive D’s under the state’s A-F grading system to transfer to another, higher-performing public school.

It was suspended during the 2015-16 school year, as the state made a transition to a new school accountability system, though students who had previously changed schools under the law were allowed to remain in place. Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: Turnaround plans, teacher shortages, taxes and more

florida-roundup-logoTurnaround plans: Fourteen Florida districts submitted plans to the State Board of Education to improve 47 schools. Plans from three districts – Alachua, Bay and Jefferson – were deferred for a month until they can be revised, while the others are approved. Politico FloridaBay News 9. Plans to improve five struggling Pinellas County schools are approved. Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Melrose and High Point elementary schools and Azalea Middle School are getting higher performing teachers and new principals with greater authority to remove teachers. Gradebook. After some initial skepticism, the board approved the Manatee County School District’s turnaround plans for Harllee Middle School and Rogers Garden Elementary School. The board was concerned about support for Rogers students, since many of them are moving to different schools because of rezoning. Bradenton Herald. Also approved by the board are turnaround plans for a Pasco County school and six Hillsborough schools. Gradebook.

Teacher shortage: With two weeks to go before classes start in Orange County schools, the district is still looking for about 300 teachers to fill openings. District officials blame retirements and student growth, and the Department of Education says the shortage is being felt around the state. WFTV.

Sales tax hike: The Palm Beach County School District plans to build four new schools, rebuild seven others and remodel many more with the $1.3 billion it would receive over 10 years if voters approve an increase of a penny on the county’s sales tax. Many schools over 10 years old would get new roofs, air conditioners and technology, and many will also get new fencing, furniture, bleachers and safety upgrades. If the measure isn’t passed, “our entire plan unravels,” says Chief Operating Officer Mike Burke. Sun-Sentinel. The district’s proposal is, so far, contained on a few pages of a document with little detail. By contrast, the county commission issued a 30-page breakdown of every project it proposed with its share of the money four months ago, with details and justification for each. Palm Beach Post.

Contract agreement: The Volusia County School District and its teachers union reach agreement on a contract after two years of squabbling. The two-year deal for teachers, clerical workers, paraprofessionals and secretaries includes raises, bonuses, and less of an increase in health-care costs for employees than the district originally proposed. The union will drop the unfair labor charges it filed against the district. Daytona Beach News-Journal. Continue Reading →


School choice, hope and the Republican agenda

Advocates talk school choice at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

Advocates talk school choice at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

After she accepted a scholarship* to enroll in a private school, Denisha Merriweather changed the course of her life. She wound up becoming the first in her family to finish high school and college. Now a graduate student at the University of South Florida, she said her success has inspired others in her family to go back to school, or pursue a GED, or encourage her younger siblings to do well.

Merriweather has told this story before, including before Congress, and this morning she took her message to Cleveland, where she joined U.S. Rep. Luke Messer, R-Indiana, and Betsy DeVos, the chairwoman of the American Federation for Children, on a panel discussing school choice and innovation at the Republican National Convention.

Messer, who chairs the school choice caucus in Congress, said waves of anger and insecurity are sweeping through American politics, and have animated some supporters of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and erstwhile Democratic contender Bernie Sanders.

“You’re seeing an uprising of everyday people, who somehow in their hearts know that they’re not being well-served by existing institutions,” he said, adding: “To be able to take your shot at the American dream, you have to have access to high-quality education. We are falling far short of that as a nation.” Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: LGBT policies, charters, uniforms, politics and more

florida-roundup-logoLGBT policies: The Brevard County School Board approves a non-discrimination policy for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender staff and students. The debate took six hours and the vote was 3-2 on the controversial measure, which would also ban discrimination on the basis of pregnancy. Florida Today. The Hillsborough County School District is planning a universal bathroom in every school in order to accommodate transgender students and others who don’t wish to use communal bathrooms. Administrators also undergo training for sensitivity. Tampa Bay Times. WFLA. WTSP

Charter schools: University Preparatory Academy becomes the fifth charter school to close in Pinellas County this year. The school’s governing board was expected to present the district with a new operating plan, but instead announced it would close. Pinellas officials will try to keep the school open as a district school. Tampa Bay Times. The Pasco County School District is recommending to the school board that the Athenian Academy of Pasco be given a five-year contract extension. The charter school has clashed with the district in the past, but the school has no financial issues and received a passing grade from the state (a D). Gradebook.

School uniforms: The Pasco County School Board tentatively approves dress codes for Ridgewood High School and Hudson Elementary School. At Ridgewood, students would wear collared polo shirts and khaki, blue or black pants. Hudson’s students would wear red or blue polo shirts and khaki or blue pants, shorts or skirts. Gradebook.

Educational politics: While Florida’s education policies have been designed largely by the Republicans who dominate the state Legislature, there are several differences between them and the policies in the Republican Party’s national platform. Politico Florida. Continue Reading →


Is there a better way to measure student achievement?

The inside-the-tent debate over virtual charter schools has highlighted an important issue about standardized testing and school accountability: There’s still plenty of room to improve the ways student performance gets measured.

First, a quick recap: Studies have found students enrolled in full-time online schools often struggle to make learning gains. This has alarmed many charter school advocates. Virtual charter school operators and their supporters have responded that their students often face unique issues that aren’t reflected in their test score gains.

Many of the people raising concerns about virtual charters acknowledge there could be hidden “x-factors” that affect students’ results, but say the information that’s available now is troubling even with that caveat. Virtual charter supporters, however, argue parents’ decisions about how best to educate their children should carry the day.

Matt Wicks, an vice president for data and policy at Connections Education who recently joined our podcast to discuss these issues, said lots of people in the online learning industry believe there’s a better way to gauge the academic progress of students with special circumstances, like those who are behind on credits when they enroll, or those who face non-academic issues like long-term medical treatments or travel outside the country.

In a portion of our interview that didn’t make the final edit, Wicks said that better way still needs to be found.

“We’ve done a lot of work on different ways to try to measure students success, and to be honest, I don’t think we have it figured out yet,” he said.

For that reason, he said, it’s worth looking at a new provision in the new federal school accountability law, which allows states to tinker with new approaches to testing.

Education Week recently explained the innovative assessment pilot program in the Every Student Succeeds act. It will allow a handful of states to try new assessments, starting in a handful of districts and eventually growing statewide. The new testing approaches will have to be accessible to all students, including those who grew up speaking a language other than English, or those with special needs.

“We see this as a bridge,” said Lillian Pace, the senior director of national policy at KnowledgeWorks, a non-profit that works to better “personalize” learning for students. Pace has studied the pilot and its implications closely.

When lawmakers sat down to write ESSA, the field wasn’t ready, she said, to “paint the picture of the next generation of assessments”—the kinds of tests that can give teachers a fuller, real-time picture of what their students know while still helping states and district improve schools.

“While states may not be successful on the first try, we expect this to be a learning process for all,” Pace said. “The goal is for participating states to build and refine a system over time that really transforms student learning.”

Continue Reading →