By Michael J. Petrilli
When conservatives hark back to a golden age, they understandably think of the 1980s and the economic growth and Cold War victory that President Reagan unleashed. But there’s an argument to be made that the apogee of conservative social policy was actually in the 1990s, with tough-on-crime laws, which broke the back of a crack-fueled murder wave; welfare reform, which reined in government dependency; and education reform, which curbed monopoly power of the teachers’ unions in our big cities.
It’s no surprise that folks on the left deplore this trifecta today, as they did then. And there’s no shame in conservatives’ reappraising certain consequences of their ’90s agenda, such as mass incarceration. What’s worrying, though, is to see conservatives grow soft on what has arguably been the most successful and transformative part of the package: education reform, particularly the charter school movement. That’s one way to read the recent poll from Education Next, where I serve as an executive editor.
We found a 12-percentage-point drop in public support for charter schools from the spring of 2016 to the spring of 2017. What’s most surprising is that Republican and Republican-leaning respondents helped to drive this trend, with GOP support down 13 percentage points. Nor is this a one-year blip; roll back the tape to 2012 and Republican support for charter schools is down a whopping 22 points.
The puzzle is why. This is no idle question, as Republican support has been crucial to the growth and success of the charter movement over the past twenty-five years.
While the charter movement has historically received proud bipartisan backing in Washington—Presidents Clinton and Obama both strongly supported charter schools, as have Presidents Bush II and Trump—charters are almost entirely a GOP accomplishment at the state level, where charter policy is made. To be sure, some blue and purple states can count a handful of Democratic legislators and the occasional Democratic governor as proponents, but the charter movement has relied on strong Republican support to sustain it. If that support evaporates, the movement could hit a brick wall.
One would imagine then, that advocates of charter schools would be exquisitely attentive to the political math at the heart of their coalition: They typically need virtually every Republican vote, plus a handful of Democrats. Such attention would inexorably lead to an obsession with shoring up support on the right side of the aisle, correct?
Well, no. Instead, many leaders of the charter movement have spent the past decade displaying their progressive credentials and chasing after Democratic votes that almost never materialize. Thus, the case for charter schools today is almost always made in social-justice terms—promoting charters’ success in closing achievement gaps, boosting poor kids’ chances of upward mobility, and alleviating systemic inequities. That was certainly the approach taken by President Obama and his social-justice-warrior secretary of education, Arne Duncan.
Nothing wrong with that—up to a point. But it becomes self-defeating when it erodes support among conservatives and Republicans, and the polling suggests that many Republican voters may no longer be aware of charter schools’ conservative pedigree. Maybe they will come back to the fold if reminded.
That’s certainly one way to read another part of the Education Next poll. We did an experiment in which half of respondents were told that President Trump supports charters. Not surprisingly, this tanked Democratic enthusiasm while driving Republican support dramatically higher—15 points higher, to be exact, which erased the decline from 2016 and then some. It’s possible, then, that the charter movement has been a little too successful in branding charter schools as a liberal thing.
So how to keep conservatives in the charter fold other than by tying the issue to particular politicians, especially one as toxic as Trump? One approach might be to boost the number of conservative and Republican voters who send their children to charter schools, but this is problematic for two reasons. First, it would take decades to accomplish, since the overwhelming majority of charters today are in distressed urban neighborhoods. And second, though charters’ current locations are partly based on student need, they also reflect political compromises: In many states, suburban Republican lawmakers have been happy to support charters so long as they don’t threaten the traditional public schools in their own leafy districts. In the short term, at least, creating suburban charters could hurt the political coalition more than it helps.
A simpler, more direct way to boost conservative support is to remind people what made charter schools conservative in the first place. This means emphasizing personal freedom and parental choice—how charters liberate families from a system in which the government assigns you a public school, take it or leave it. Choice brings free-market dynamics into public education, using the magic of competition to lift all boats. And while some conservatives understandably would prefer private school choice, which allows a family to select a religious school, for example, instead of an independently run public school, charters are much more than a way station to vouchers. They have proven to be scalable and powerful, especially in cities.
But there’s another aspect of charter schools that gets very little attention these days, especially from the social-justice types: Most are non-union. In fact, in most districts, union representation is the most significant difference between charter schools and traditional public schools. It’s hugely important. It’s why charter schools can and do fire ineffective teachers, why they can turn on a dime when an instructional approach isn’t working, why they can spend their money on the classroom instead of the bureaucracy, and why they can put the needs of students first, every day, all day. Yet most charter supporters almost never talk about any of this.
We should. Fordham’s most recent study gives us one opportunity. It finds that teachers in traditional public schools are three times as likely to be “chronically absent” from school as charter teachers, meaning they are absent more than ten days per year. And why might that be? Because union contracts often allow district teachers to take more than ten days of sick or personal leave—on top of school holidays, summer vacation, and professional-development days. That’s two weeks out of the classroom in a typical forty-week school year, and studies show that students learn significantly less under substitute teachers. Yet unions have the gall to demand these policies, and elected school boards have the cowardice to agree to them.
Charter schools, meanwhile, can and do expect their teachers to show up for work except in urgent situations. In some of the best charter networks, chronic teacher absenteeism is virtually nonexistent. That’s because their teachers are fully committed to student success, understand that their colleagues might have to cover for them while they are gone, and know they will be held accountable if they don’t do their part. In other words, charter schools are like most of America, where employees are treated like responsible adults—and where they rise to that responsibility.
We should talk about this more.
There are other “conservative” aspects of charter schools worth crowing about as well. Many practice a no-nonsense approach to discipline, for example, in which students are expected to follow rules or face suspensions—commonsense practices that many public schools are nonetheless outlawing. Others provide a “classical” education, with a focus on the Great Books of Western civilization that you almost never find in traditional public schools. Yet others are serious and thoughtful about helping their students follow the “success sequence”—finishing high school, getting a job, and getting married before having children—which social scientists have shown is a nearly foolproof way to avoid poverty.
Yet some charter supporters on the left implore those of us on the right to downplay these aspects. That is a big mistake. If we charter advocates want to maintain conservative and Republican support for these life-changing schools, we need to remember who our friends are—and help them remember why they liked us in the first place.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in The National Review.
Leveraging the power of parent engagement is one of the under-appreciated ways in which Eva Moskowitz and her New York City-based network of Success Academy charter schools has significantly improved upon the work of pioneering “no excuses” charter schools. Many high-performing charters talk about parents as partners in their children’s education. Success Academy mandates it, monitors it, and holds parents to account for honoring the agreement they signed when enrolling their children. That agreement includes faithful adherence to school policies on things like bringing kids to school and picking them up on time and in uniform; avoiding unexcused absences and tardiness; and monitoring homework and maintaining their child’s reading logs. “We've never believed that we could educate kids without the parents,” Moskowitz told me recently. “We're not that good.”
Success Academy is now pushing its belief in parent engagement to a level that may be unprecedented in U.S. public education. With little fanfare, the network has in the past week begun sending home “Parent Investment Cards” evaluating how well—or how poorly—parents are fulfilling their promise to honor Success Academy’s “parent responsibilities” in three areas: “school readiness,” “homework supervision,” and “parent responsiveness and investment.” In each category, the parent is adjudged as “meeting expectations” (green), “approaching expectations” (yellow), or “not meeting expectations” (red)—a color-system that echoes the behavior chart in every Success Academy classroom. It’s no longer just a child who might “finish the day on red” but his parents, too. Some parents are not pleased.
Sample of Success Academy Parent Investment Card
(Click to enlarge.)
I first heard about the reports from a pair of well-off white parents who send their kids to Success Academy’s Upper West Side school, one of the most ethnically and economically diverse of the network’s 46 schools. One mother was ruefully amused; the other was appalled, describing the Investment Card as a “parent report card.” My initial reaction was that Moskowitz and Success Academy were quietly putting their stake in the ground, establishing that even as the network’s stellar results attract more upscale families in comparatively well-off New York neighborhoods like Cobble Hill, Union Square, and the Upper West Side, their primary focus would remain serving low-SES families, many of whom might not have gotten the word about reading to children, for example, and need to be coached, coaxed, or prodded along. While parental hopes and aspirations may be uniformly distributed, parent engagement is not: A recent Pew study showed that 71 percent of parents with a college degree say they read aloud to their children daily, compared to only 33 percent of those with a high school diploma or less. It obviously wouldn’t be acceptable to send a “parent investment card” to one set of schools or parents and not to others in the same network. By the same token, many families—rich and poor—might not fully believe that Success means what its leaders and team members say about attendance, uniforms, and homework. Spoiler alert: They mean it.
As with so many controversies that have attached themselves to Moskowitz and Success Academy, no one can accuse the network of being anything other than clear and candid, even to a fault. Every new Success Academy family signs a contract promising “to abide by all of Success Academy’s culture policies and values.” The network’s Parent Handbook plainly sets forth those policies and values, and—for as long as Success Academy has existed—failure to live up to them has prompted school administrators to bring parents in for pointed conversations. Critics, meanwhile, have charged those strict policies are a mechanism for counseling out students who don’t mesh with the schools’ exacting culture.
In her new memoir, Moskowitz tells the story of one mother who wouldn’t read at home to her child even after repeatedly promising that she would change her ways. “I invited her to a meeting at which there was a surprise guest: her mother, whom I’d met one day when she was picking up her grandson from school and seemed to be more responsible than the mom.” The grandmother was furious with her daughter and assured her that it wouldn’t happen again. The anecdote, Moskowitz explains, “reflects our philosophy of not giving up.”
Perhaps so, but there may be a difference between an uncomfortable conversation when there’s a clear and obvious problem and having your child’s school assign every parent a grade, an evaluation, and a color. A low-income South Bronx Success Academy mom, whom I’ve gotten to know well, was seething over her “report card” when I ran into her in a church on Sunday. “I’m doing everything that I can,” she said. “How are you gonna give me ‘approaching expectations’ when I’m killing myself?” This parent, who has been supportive of Moskowitz and Success Academy, is planning to speak to her child’s middle school principal about it—the very outcome Moskowitz says she wants to encourage—but she said she first needs to figure out how to approach it without getting upset. “It was an insult,” she said flatly.
To her enduring credit, Moskowitz refuses to perform what she calls “bypass surgery” on parents. “I think there's something very disrespectful about it, to sort of say, ‘You brought these children into the world but now we, the school, will take over,’” she told me when I asked her recently about the new initiative. “I think there's a tendency, particularly when you serve poorer parents, to just work around them.”
In Moskowitz’s view, the Parent Investment Cards arriving at pupils’ homes this month are nothing new. Success Academy, she insists, has always tracked “culture data,” which is even the title of one the chapters of her memoir. “We’ve had a lot of different communications systems and we thought that we needed to make it a little easier for parents to read the data and understand the state of affairs,” she says. “There’s utterly nothing new about the underlying design principle. This particular incarnation is new.”
My Fordham colleague Checker Finn has long supported a move like this. When I told him of Moskowitz's action, he said "Gutsy and much needed. If schools and parents are truly to share responsibility for educating children, each needs in some way to be accountable to the other." Another Moskowitz fan I mentioned it to was also impressed. “Holy s—t, talk about cojones!” he cheered. “The anti-reformers have forever said we should hold parents accountable. They will surely find a reason to oppose this anyway.” Without question, but so might some of Moskowitz’s best and most loyal supporters: her parents. If the small handful of Success Academy parents I’ve spoken to about this are an indication, Moskowitz might for once be overplaying her hand.
In part 1 of this two-part essay, I argued that if we want to empower our scholars to truly be on the path to college completion, charter school leaders should use the occasion of the sector’s silver anniversary to stop measuring student performance against the worst outcomes of the frayed traditional public school system. It’s a sector that’s long produced dismal district, city, and state test averages and graduation rates.
Consider, for example, my home state of New York, which is regularly guilty of these comparisons based on low expectations:
- City: In Rochester, New York, a criminally low 7.6 and 7.9 percent of all students citywide passed the state’s 2016–17 English language arts and math exams, respectively. And of the eleven charter schools in Rochester, only eight exceeded the city’s 8 percent average passage rate on both assessments. Hardly a cause for celebration.
- District: In Community School District 8 in the South Bronx, 63 percent of all boys who started ninth grade in 2011 never graduated high school at all. And over the last three years, an average of 11.9 percent of eighth grade boys in District 8 passed the state math exam. So how does it feel that, in its first year of testing, 51 percent of the third grade students at Boys Prep Bronx, a charter school that’s part of the Public Prep network I lead, passed the 2016–17 iteration of that exam? Bittersweet. Yes, we beat the depressing District 8 threshold and are proud of our hard-working faculty, but 50 percent of our young male scholars still are not yet “proficient—and it’s not clear that this benchmark correlates with a college-ready path anyway.
- State: As of 2015, New York State defined a student as “college and career ready” if he or she graduated high school with a score of 75/100 or higher in English language arts and 80/100 or higher in math on New York’s Regents exam. But as the state education department outlined in its 2015 presentation, as table 1 shows, only half of all high school graduates across race cleared that bar.
Table 1. New York State graduation and college and career readiness rates, June 2014
Indeed, a high school diploma far too rarely correlates with college readiness—especially for low- and middle-income students of all races. In New York City alone, 21,000 college students who have graduated from city high schools pay on average $3,000 each for catch-up courses—totalling a whopping annual “remediation tax” of $63 million.
Across the country, the outcomes of the public education system in the communities we charter leaders serve are so devastatingly poor that they should be rendered useless to us as a basis of comparison. Instead we should adopt measures that actually predict success in higher education.
Despite my issues with how college completion rates are measured, established charter networks that have learned what works by actually producing college graduates can be a guide. Towards this end, Richard Whitmire and The 74 have teamed up to create “The Alumni,” a blog series that covers networks like KIPP, Yes Prep, Uncommon, and Achievement First, and features the interventions that have best prepared students to make it to and through college. The articles enable other school leaders to compare the characteristics of these networks’ alumni who earned degrees to those who didn’t.
One key takeaway is that annual state test scores—a common, government-mandated accountability metric—are wholly unreliable indicators of future college success. To improve likelihood of college completion, schools would be wise to develop students’ character-based strengths and develop not only their knowledge of personal finance, but incentivize actual college savings from an early age.
In College Initiatives Redefined, YES Prep acknowledges that, since its founding in 1998, it “learned that there were many flaws in our thinking that would begin affecting our students’ [college] success if we did not shift our focus.” They once thought, for example, “If our students are academically prepared for college, they will be successful in college”; but later learned that “non-academic skills are often the determining factor in our students’ success.”
This YES Prep realization echoes findings from KIPP, who in 2011 became the first network to bravely publish its longitudinal college completion results, as well as its discovery of critical traits that increased the likelihood of college completion. In 2016, KIPP once again highlighted that their alumni who became college graduates possessed a “powerful set of character strengths, including grit, self-control, social intelligence (including self-advocacy), zest, optimism, and gratitude, that enables students to stick with college even in the face of considerable obstacles.”
To acclimate our scholars early to the challenges of college, Public Prep has created strategic partnerships with higher education institutions like Cornell University, US Naval Academy at Annapolis, and Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, in which our middle school scholars must travel away from home and take part in immersive, multi-day experiences on a college campus. There, these students—at eleven and twelve years old—have taken week-long classes in physics, leadership development, STEM, and science fiction writing with college professors; slept in dorms; and normalized their self-expectations of college completion—and did all this six years before they enter college.
How to develop these traits of “stick-to-it-iveness” is an area for sector-wide learning. It is heartening to see foundations like Walton supporting efforts such as Character Lab to achieve its mission to advance the science and practice of character development. Hopefully all of us will be able to implement practical classroom strategies to help our scholars develop a growth mindset from the earliest of ages.
KIPP, in its first-ever survey of nearly 3,000 alumni in college, highlighted the financial fragility that many first-generation and low-income college students encounter and fail to overcome. Lack of money and adequate financial planning manifests itself in food insecurity, the inability to pay bills, and ultimately the tragic decision to defer or end enrollment.
At Public Prep, beginning in our PrePrep program for four year-olds and then continuing each year through eighth grade, we match at least $50 for each scholar’s New York State 529 College Savings Account and encourage each family to develop a normal practice of setting aside money for their child’s higher education. Additional matches are made throughout the year to incentivize perfect attendance and other behaviors conducive to long term success. In our College Knowledge program, we also educate our middle school scholars on approximately one hundred of the finest colleges and universities in the country that are either tuition-free (e.g., West Point) or have adopted no-loan financial aid policies (e.g., Princeton or Yale), especially for low-income students. The message: If our scholars get the grades, incredible schools await them with significant financial resources to make college affordable.
Public Prep, like many charter networks, is constantly innovating to help solve the puzzle of college completion. This is why for twenty five years the charter sector as a whole has overcome enormous opposition to provide high-quality options to families. Yet even here in New York City, where CREDO has just found that charter results supersede underperforming district schools, we must acknowledge the former’s real but infrequently admitted advantages over the latter, such as the ability to: (1) hire and fire our own faculty and operate free of union regulations; (2) recruit motivated, self-selected parents who proactively enter lotteries; and (3) refuse to accept transfer students (or “backfill”) into the ever-critical testing grades of three through eight, as some networks do to avoid disruption to classroom culture.
With all these advantages—after twenty five years—the charter sector's student performance results should be far superior to traditional district outcomes, especially as it relates to longitudinal outcomes like college completion rates.
We already know much about what it takes to put our scholars on a path to college completion and to break the cycle of poverty. Indeed, the seminal book Crossing the Finish Line has been described as “the most comprehensive look yet possible at the primary determinants of graduation rates—and what might be done to improve them.” In it, authors William Bowen, Matthew Chingos, and Michael McPherson argue that, beyond content mastery, “qualities of motivation and perseverance—as well as the presence of good study habits and time management skills—tell us a great deal about the chances that a student will complete a college program.”
If K–8 leaders measure our ability to instill in our scholars these character-based strengths—and imbue the growing knowledge around the likely success of sequencing life choices related to education, work, and family formation—then we will truly equip our scholars to best overcome whatever institutional barriers they may face on the way to and through college. We just have to stop patting ourselves on the back for surpassing the low standards of the current system.
I hope we all have the courage to recognize that this is what we are supposed to do.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
On this week's podcast, special guest Chris Stewart, a writer and education activist, and leader of the new Wayfinder Foundation, joins Mike Petrilli and Alyssa Schwenk to discuss how charter advocates can appeal to progressives without alienating conservatives. During the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines teacher views on standards (they like 'em) and tests (not so much).
Amber's Research Minute
Kaufman, Julia H., Elaine Lin Wang, Laura S. Hamilton, Lindsey E. Thompson and Gerald Hunter. U.S. Teachers' Support of Their State Standards and Assessments: Findings from the American Teacher Panel. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2017.
Most American public school teachers are paid according to salary schedules that take into account their years of experience and number of degrees earned. This compensation approach has been criticized because it doesn’t anchor teacher pay to instructional effectiveness or other factors that merit consideration (e.g., specializing in harder-to-staff fields or working in high-needs schools). Instead, teacher pay depends on factors that research suggests are not closely tied to student achievement. Now a new study by Michael Hansen and Diana Quintero of the Brookings Institution takes a different look at teacher salary schedules, this time through the lens of equitable pay and patterns of school funding.
In terms of wage distribution, the analysts find that public school teacher pay is more equitable relative to other occupations. Using the Theil Index—a measure of equity—they find that teacher pay is more evenly distributed than for doctors or lawyers and just slightly more equitable than for nurses or social workers. This is not surprising, as salary schedules tend to fit teacher pay within a relatively narrow range; for instance, salaries for Columbus, Ohio, educators range from about $40,000 to $90,000. Within the teaching profession, the pay differences are explained mainly by experience and degrees—predictable given the design of salary schedules—and the state in which a teacher works.
This leads the analysts to examine the state-by-state variations in wage equity among teachers. They ask: Is there a correlation between states with more “regressive” funding systems—wealthier districts funded at higher levels—and less equitable teacher pay? The theory is that regressive systems might allow affluent districts to put their educators on higher pay schedules relative to poorer ones. This, in turn, would create greater pay inequity among teachers within that state. Indeed, when they crunch the numbers, the analysts uncover a modest relationship between regressive funding and less equitable teacher pay, as expected.
Not surprisingly, this analysis finds that lockstep salary schedules generally create a more even pay distribution for teachers. But that doesn’t mean it’s an evenhanded approach for all. Some teachers—especially younger ones who must wait years for more generous pay—may not view the salary schedule as particularly fair. It’s also possible that teachers in tough, high-poverty schools might not see their salaries as equitable when comparing their wages to those paid in upper middle-class suburbs. This has implications, particularly for high-poverty schools: Without the flexibility to differentiate pay, they struggle to retain quality teachers—particularly younger ones—who are apt to move to wealthier districts or out of the profession.
Above all, we should ask whether it’s fair to students and parents to award automatic pay raises—as salary schedules do—to ineffective or chronically absent teachers just the same as high-performing educators
SOURCE: Michael Hansen and Diana Quintero, “Scrutinizing equal pay for equal work among teachers,” Brookings Institution (2017).
By expanding access to options including charter schools, choice advocates hope that more students will reap the benefits of attending high-performing schools. But do all families have charter options in their area? In this study, researchers chart the Ohio landscape and seek to answer two questions: First, where are charter schools located with respect to the poverty and racial demographics of their community? Second, do low-income families have equal access to charter schools?
To answer these questions, researchers Andrew Saultz of the University of Miami and Christopher Yaluma of the Ohio State University (and a Fordham research intern this past summer) collected data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the U.S. Census Bureau, and the Ohio Department of Education. These data were then used to conduct analyses on the geographic locations of brick-and-mortar charters and the characteristics of their surrounding communities. For the purposes of this study, a family is said to have access to a charter school if they live within a five-mile radius of one.
Unsurprisingly for those who are familiar with Ohio, the majority of charters are located in large cities like Cleveland, Columbus, and Dayton. This is almost certainly due to Ohio law, which restricts the opening of brick-and-mortar charters to certain—mostly urban—locations served by low-performing “challenged districts.” What is surprising, though, is that charters are less likely to locate in the very highest-poverty areas of these districts. This doesn’t mean that families in the toughest urban areas lack access—they generally live within five miles of a charter school, but their kids may have to travel farther to get there. On the other hand, families in poor rural areas are less likely to have access to a brick-and-mortar charter school.
The data also show that Ohio charters currently serve regions with higher than average proportions of black students, but the same is not true for Hispanic students. City-specific analyses indicate that charters do not locate in regions with the highest concentrations of black populations. For example, charters in Columbus tend to locate on the perimeter of the city rather than within the city center where the highest concentration of the city’s black families lives. Similar patterns can be seen in Cincinnati and Dayton. Meanwhile, a higher percentage of Ohio’s Hispanic population lives in rural areas, particularly in rural northwest Ohio—a fact that explains why Hispanic students are less likely to have access to charter schools. Unfortunately, not all Buckeye students are benefitting from equal access to brick-and-mortar charter schools. Because these charters are typically located in the largest metropolitan areas, there are several regions of the state, especially rural ones, with significant levels of poverty but no charter schools. To achieve truly equal access, the authors argue that Ohio policymakers should reconsider current state law, which restricts where charter schools are permitted to open their doors. On that point, we wholeheartedly agree—Ohio needs as many high-quality schools, charter or otherwise, as possible—as do other states, who ought to heed the lessons on this study.
SOURCE: Andrew Saultz and Christopher B. Yaluma, “Equal access? Analyzing charter location relative to demographics in Ohio,” Journal of School Choice (July 2017).