The first obligation of schools is to keep kids safe, and the second is to create and preserve a calm environment in which those who want to learn are able to do so with minimal interruption. We may empathize with the travails that cause kids to disrupt that environment, but it’s still the school’s responsibility—if it can’t speedily and durably solve the problem within its classrooms—to put disrupters somewhere else. So it’s disheartening to see forces exclude and punish institutions that have high suspension rates, independent of reason and regardless of academic outcomes. They’re warring against the very schools that successfully educate thousands of poor and minority kids.
I’m a confirmed school-discipline hawk. I believe that the first obligation of schools is to keep kids safe and their second obligation is to create and preserve a calm environment in which those who want to learn are able to do so with minimal interruption. While I may understand and even empathize with the travails and demons that cause other kids to disrupt that environment, it is nonetheless the school’s responsibility—if it cannot speedily and durably solve the problem within its classrooms—to put the disrupters somewhere else. Period.
So it was disheartening to learn that the terrific California-based nonprofit Innovate Public Schools, in its hot-off-the-presses list of “Top Bay Area Schools for Underserved Students,” decided this time around to exclude schools (many of them charters) with stellar academic performance but relatively high suspension rates—according to the state’s complicated school “dashboard.” (Never mind how squirrely and inconsistent is self-reporting by schools on all matters disciplinary.) We’re told that that new exclusionary criterion on the part of Innovate led to the banishment of more than half a dozen schools that would otherwise have made the grade as places that, in marked contrast to the overwhelming majority of their counterparts in the area, do really, really well at educating “underserved” kids.
In the same troubling vein, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is dinging top-performing Roxbury Prep, founded by former U.S. Education Secretary John King and a highly admired member of the Uncommon Schools charter family, because of its suspension rate. According to the Boston Globe, “State officials mandated lower suspension rates when they renewed the school’s five-year operating license in February. The school must demonstrate significant improvement in discipline rates by December 31, 2021, or it could face probation. School officials must also develop an action plan based on a comprehensive evaluation of Roxbury Prep’s discipline policies, climate, and cultural practices.”
What we’re seeing is the crusade against school suspensions now warring against schools that successfully educate thousands of poor and minority kids. It’s a fact that one of the secrets—not the only secret—of their success are behavioral standards as rigorous as their academic standards, and little or no tolerance for youngsters who cannot or will not meet those standards. Though the phrase “no excuses” has gone out of vogue, the fact is that great schools such as Roxbury Prep—and Eva Moskowitz’s fast-growing Success Academy network in New York City—simply refuse to accept excuses for infractions. Which doesn’t mean they hurl kids out of school willy-nilly. As a spokesperson for Roxbury Prep told the Globe, “We are committed to educating every one of our students, and suspensions are always the last option to ensure that all students can learn and grow in a joyful, safe school environment.” (My emphasis.)
Students crave “joyful, safe” classrooms. Teachers fear for their own safety, as well as that of their pupils, in schools where chronic miscreants are allowed to stay in class. As for parents, if any prefer “stolid, unruly” schools for their kids, that’s what choice is for. Schools differ in so many ways, among which are the tradeoffs they make, the priorities they adhere to, and the norms they enforce. Which is why it’s especially galling to see equity hawks and discipline doves go after charter schools, which are all about choice. While they are obliged to admit all comers, they aren’t supposed to be forced to retain everyone who stumbles in but then can’t or won’t do the work and abide by the rules. The really good charters, like all schools of choice, are transparent about both workload and rules and do their best in advance to make clear to families what is expected if in fact they choose that school (and, in most places, also win the admissions lottery, because the supply of these great schools doesn’t begin to match the demand for them). Clarity in advance minimizes the risk of conflict later. But this is supposed to be a transaction between family and school. And the in event that someone feels discriminated against, there are umpteen ways to make that known and seek redress. But regulators and do-good organizations that care about closing achievement gaps and expanding opportunities for needy kids ought not punish schools that do those things just because they maintain the very standards, both academic and behavioral, that make it possible to do those things!
One of the hallmarks of charter schools is their unique ability to align closely with parents’ values. Every American has fundamental moral and ethical principles, some of which can’t always be accommodated by traditional public schools. Their comprehensive approach is meant to serve the broader society or “entire community” and is a good fit for millions of families—but not for all. It’s one reason we ought to embrace charters, especially those designed to serve families who otherwise would be stuck sending their kids to schools that violate their beliefs, particularly the millions who can’t afford private or home schooling.
King Charter School, which hopes to open in Pinellas County, Florida, minutes west of Tampa, is such a place. If approved, it would be America’s first vegan charter school. Yet because of bizarre federal regulations that favor the agriculture industry and an all-too-familiar local review process that’s stacked against charters, its application may be denied.
For readers unfamiliar with veganism, minimizing or forgoing the consumption of animal products in favor of a plant-based diet has become important to a significant portion of Americans. According to a recent Gallup poll, 3 percent identify as vegan, meaning they consume nothing produced by animals, be it meat, milk, cheese, butter, etc. Another 5 percent are vegetarian, going only without meat. Combined, these groups comprise 27 million people. And their proportion is higher among those most likely to have school-age children, topping out at 11 percent of those between the ages of thirty and forty-nine.
Some go vegan or vegetarian for health reasons, but many are driven by deeper motivations. Research has found that plant-based diets have reduced effects on carbon emissions, water consumption, and other ecological factors. So they’re more common and important to those who are especially concerned about climate change and environmental degradation. The same is true of people who are passionate about improving the welfare and protecting the lives of animals. In these cases, foregoing meat and related byproducts is a moral choice, and is the basis for what practitioners believe to be ethical behavior. It is, in other words, a very important part of their lives, and more than just a fleeting preference.
It makes sense, then, that some vegan families would like to send their children to a school that embraces these values and thereby helps further the causes they hold dear, perhaps one that looks at ecology, economics, biology, and history within a frame that aligns with their beliefs. Similar value-based institutions exist and thrive elsewhere, such as the decade-old Ethical Community Charter School in New Jersey, founded around principles of ethics, service, and social justice. So long as such places are open to all children and educate them in a manner that satisfies sensible school accountability measures and parent expectations, they should be permitted to open and continue running, even if they’re not what you or I would choose for our own children.
Instead, as too bedevils charter schools in America, political reasons threaten to block King Charter School’s approval until at least next year.
One hurdle is a federal regulation related to the free and reduced-priced meals available to all low-income public school students. Normally, schools provide breakfast or lunch to these children, and then get reimbursed by the government. Yet King may be ineligible because of a ridiculous, dairy-industry-induced regulation that says schools “must not directly or indirectly restrict the sale or marketing of fluid milk at any time or in any place on school premises or at any school-sponsored event.”
Another impediment is the Pinellas County charter approval process. Florida law requires applicants first to seek approval from the local school district in which they hope to open. Though denials can be appealed to a non-district entity, this can be prohibitively challenging for prospective operators. States with the strongest laws permit applicants to initially submit to independent authorizers. Doing otherwise, as Florida does, improperly empowers competitors to be gatekeepers. It’s akin to allowing Walmart to veto Amazon’s arrival in a community.
And indeed, Pinellas County doesn’t seem very friendly to charter schools. In 2017, for example, the school board voted 7-0 to join a group suing the state legislature to block a bill that gave charters greater access to local property taxes. This is a funding source that traditional public schools enjoy but charters often don’t, which contributes to their $5,828 per-pupil national funding deficit. The district may also, according to one Florida charter consultant, be prone to rejecting applications that would pass muster in Broward, Hillsborough, and Palm Beach counties.
It’s therefore unsurprising that King Charter School founder Maria Solanki told Reason that the officials were prepared to reject the school’s 400-page application due to a minor technical error that mistakenly allocated the wrong amount of time between classes. They also reportedly took issue with the curriculum, “even though it was far more comprehensive than what state law requires and written by a board member who once served as the state's science curriculum expert.”
Obstacles like these exemplify the various forces that prevent millions of American families from having access to schools to which, given the opportunity, they’d send their children. In their way are laws, rules, and attitudes that too often have little to do with academics or what’s best for children. Most harmed are the kids and families stuck in schools that don’t serve them well—or, in the case of vegans, practice in plain sight behaviors that they find immoral, offensive, and destructive.
Better would be approving distinctive places like King Charter School, provided their applications promise and describe institutions of sufficient quality, and then holding them accountable for results. If their academic outcomes are inadequate, officials can close them down. And if they aren’t supplying appealing options for families, moms and dads will send their kids elsewhere, and the buildings will shut their doors.
More importantly, embracing schools like King honors and strengthens American pluralism—the idea that diverse groups can and should be able to coexist and cooperate. Preserving this important principle, present in many ways since our country’s founding, is especially important today as our populace fractures and its fissures deepen. Our school systems, tasked with molding our young people to be good productive citizens, must resist these divisions. And in Pinellas County, Florida, supporting the opening of America’s first vegan charter school would be a worthy step in that direction.
Charter school students deserve every opportunity to learn in facilities built to meet their needs. Sadly, however, many of them attend schools lacking the amenities that parents normally expect—things like playgrounds, gymnasiums, science labs, and cafeterias. Most Ohio charter students, as a 2016finds, learn in cramped spaces that are smaller than the state’s recommended guidelines.
Charter schools’ inadequate facilities are the result of deficient policies. A Januaryreleased by former Auditor of State Dave Yost highlights the challenges facing charters—and the lengths to which some go to secure facilities. The auditor issued this “public interest report” in response to complaints about the leasing agreements of Ohio charter schools affiliated with the Concept, Imagine, and National Heritage Academy management companies. But before diving into the particulars of these cases, the auditor’s report lays out four facility barriers facing charters:
- Charters don’t have the same levers as school districts to raise money for facilities. Unlike districts, charters cannot ask local taxpayers to support bonds that provide the needed for capital projects. Moreover, charters cannot access the state’s major school that have disbursed in state aid over the past two decades.
- Unlike districts, charters can be closed for academic underperformance. The risk of closure due to fiscal stress is also a possibility, as Ohio charters receive significantly than nearby districts. These realities limit access to credit markets because lenders may be unwilling to loan millions to schools that could close before the dollars are repaid.
- Districts are often reluctant to offer unused space to charters. As the auditor notes, Cincinnati Public Schools used to put deed restrictions on disposed properties that prohibited charters from using them. The Ohio Supreme Court that practice, but stories from and suggest that districts still sometimes take steps to deny facilities to charters.
- The state provides austere charter facility support. The auditor’s report notes the $200 per-pupil allowance for charter facilities—which covers just a fraction of maintenance and leasing costs—and a modest $25 million that has supported renovations in a dozen or so schools. Yet beyond this there are no other state aid programs that support charter facility needs.
Taken together, these policies force charters into less conventional facility arrangements. The figure below shows that the vast majority of Ohio charters rent space, which the report attributes to difficulties in obtaining financing or grants. Less than 20 percent of charters have cobbled together the funds needed to purchase a facility. Some of these fortunatehave already become pillars in their community, and with a building of their own, their prospects for the future are bright.
Figure 1: Charter school facility arrangements
Source: Ohio Auditor of State,.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with leasing space, the auditor’s report also describes the questionable leases of nine Ohio charter schools. These schools entered into unfavorable leases with real-estate firms tied to their management companies. As one of the few (if not only) suppliers of a viable facility, the management company held tremendous leverage over the school boards—and won leasing terms reflecting that power. The charter boards couldn’t easily walk away from the management company offer—no matter how bad the terms—and pursue other avenues.
This situation raises several concerns. First, the expensive leases—in some cases, roughly double the market rate—eat into the resources available for classroom instruction. Second, the high rents raise worries that taxpayer money is inappropriately benefitting real estate firms instead of schools. Third, leases such as these weaken charter school boards’ ability to sever ties with poor-performing management companies, as doing so could result in the school losing its building.
Fortunately, there are ways to fix this. Ohio has already undertaken serious reforms aimed at curbing these types of abuses, and the auditor offers additional suggestions—most notably, subjecting leases to competitive bidding. Yet as the auditor recognizes, regulation alone can’t solve charters’ broader facility challenges. To this end, Ohio should pursue policies that would better enable charters to obtain suitable spaces at affordable prices. The most critical include the following three.
Strengthen state supports. Because charter schools lack access to local taxpayer support, the state needs to step up and support charter facilities. With only a meager $200 per-pupil facility reimbursement, charters have to use operational dollars—already stretched thin by—to pay for things like maintenance, utilities, and rent. Charters shouldn’t be forced to dip into instructional dollars just to make ends meet, and Ohio should increase the amount of dedicated facility funds to one that more closely matches the cost of maintaining a building. At the same time, legislators should also re-appropriate funds for the , so that more charters can undertake capital improvement projects.
Create a credit-enhancement program. To improve charters’ access to credit, Ohio should implement a “moral obligation” program. Already adopted by, , and , this program would allow qualifying charters to use the state’s superior when seeking debt financing for capital projects, enabling them to secure funds at lower interest rates and save thousands of dollars over the life of a loan. Should a charter default, the state would pledge—and this is the moral obligation—to repay lenders. (Participating Colorado charters also cover some of the costs by paying into a reserve fund.) Ohio already has a program on the books for charters, but there is no evidence of use, nor any money appropriated to support it. To jump-start state backing for facility purchases and capital improvements, legislators should revive this law by appropriating reserve funds, increasing the amount of liability that the state can back, and allowing qualifying charters to substitute the state’s credit ratings when seeking loans.
Encourage use of underutilized buildings. Mothballed schools that have already been paid for by taxpayers are an obvious solution to charter facility woes. While Ohio does have a “right of first refusal” law, policymakers should go further to ensure districts actually make space available to charters. To do this, Ohio could take a cue fromand publish a list of unused buildings that charters can potentially buy or lease. State lawmakers could also consider approach, which requires districts to make underutilized space available to charters. This could encourage in half-empty buildings, which can not only charter students, but also pupils attending district schools. Given demand for facility space, there is no reason that any publicly financed building should go vacant or underutilized.
Cramped classrooms and dubious leases are symptoms of Ohio’s inadequate charter facility policies. To ensure that all charter school students have the opportunity to learn in spaces built for learning, legislators should work to cure the underlying disease.
 In fall 2015, legislators enacted sweeping regulatory whose effects may not have shown up in the auditor’s analysis of 2015–16 leasing data. Among other things, they include a provision that now requires an independent real estate agent to declare a lease “commercially reasonable” before a school and management company sign an agreement.
I’ve beaten the drum forever about the importance of building students’ content knowledge if we want to improve their reading comprehension, but another key insight from rigorous research is that kids will read better only if exposed to complex texts. This insight was embedded into the Common Core and other high-quality English language arts standards. But alas, this latest annual survey of K–12 reading habits from Renaissance Learning indicates that we still have a long way to go. If the data reported are to be believed—and there are some caveats—the bad news is that America’s students aren’t reading very much. But there’s worse news: Their reading is mostly low-level fare, despite the loud and consistent call over the last ten years for children to be pushed to read more complex texts.
A common assessment software in U.S. schools and classrooms, Renaissance Learning’s “Accelerated Reader” (AR) program allows teachers to track their students’ independent reading performance, including the amount of time they spend reading, their comprehension, and the complexity level of the books they read. Students select books and take short AR quizzes afterward. The cycle of reading and quizzes organically creates over time a database of the books read by 8.7 million students in over 28,000 schools, representing all fifty states and the District of Columbia.
Collectively they read 289 million books in the 2017–2018 school year. But that’s a lot less than it sounds. The data show that about half of U.S. students read less than 15 minutes a day. Moreover, time spend reading peaks in the late elementary years, then declines sharply as kids enter middle school, and craters in high school when they read just eight minutes a day in eleventh and twelfth grade.
More concerning is the low level of challenge the data surface. Not surprisingly, students choose more challenging texts as they move up in age and grade. However, the increases in complexity are small from year to year, and without exception at the very bottom of the recommended reading range for any given grade. Accelerated Reader scores books using something called an “ATOS” score—a proprietary measure of readability and text complexity. So for example, during the 2017–2018 school year, the report shows that “869,110 sixth graders each read, on average, 15.9 books and 391,419 words.” The average ATOS level for those books is 4.5, meaning the text could likely be read independently by a student whose reading skills are typical of a fourth grader in the fifth month of school (remember this is for sixth grade). By twelfth grade, reading volume collapses to 4.7 books read and, on average, about 246,000 words, while complexity has crept up only incrementally. As the report notes, “a huge disparity exists between the books high school seniors are reading (ATOS: 5.6), compared to materials they will likely need to comprehend and use upon graduation, such as college texts (13.8), fiction and nonfiction best sellers (7.3), popular media (10.4), and career documents (10.6).”
Despite the massive dataset, a few cautions are in order. We can’t assume that every book a kid reads gets captured. The program may not capture a significant volume of reading outside of ELA classes. Only the books on which they take AR quizzes are counted, so it could lowball the data. And the program is much more commonly used in middle school and (especially) elementary school. It’s also possible that AR isn't fully accounting for more rigorous texts kids are reading in guided reading groups or other more intensive forms of small group instruction, but even if the dataset only captures independent reading, it's not a pretty picture. The report is shot through with concerns from Renaissance itself about the low level of challenge in What Kids Are Reading.
Finally, a quick glance of the lists of the twenty most popular books read at each grade level, a fascinating feature of the report and a glimpse into the habits and tastes of kids, show that series like Captain Underpants and Diary of the Wimpy Kid books dominate upper elementary and middle school grades. (The Harry Potter phenomenon appears to have crashed, with those books appearing near the bottom of the top-twenty lists, and only in middle school.) By high school meatier reads like To Kill a Mockingbird (the #1 ninth grade book), Romeo and Juliet (#3), Elie Wiesel’s Night (#5), and Animal Farm (#8) are still well represented—and with “ATOS” scores that often belie their thematic nuance and depth. So perhaps all is not lost.
SOURCE: “What Kids Are Reading,” Renaissance (2019).
Governors and legislative leaders in almost every state have made expanding and improving career and technical education (CTE) a top priority, yet the importance of quality data is often overlooked. The recent reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, which governs how states implement and expand access to CTE, offers a crucial opportunity to redesign related data systems. But to do so successfully, leaders must understand how they’re currently using CTE information and the barriers that prevent leveraging it in more effective ways.
To assist policymakers, Advance CTE, which represents state directors of career and technical education, partnered with a host of other organizations through the New Skills for Youth initiative to conduct a national survey of those directors. The response rate was impressive, with fifty-one state-level directors from forty-eight states, two territories, and Washington, D.C., responding. Based on these results, Advance CTE reports on the quality of data systems, identifies common challenges, and offers recommendations for improvement.
The report identifies four commonly used and broadly accepted indicators of career readiness at both the secondary and postsecondary level: completion of a work-based learning experience; attainment of a recognized postsecondary credential (including industry-recognized credentials and postsecondary degrees); completion of dual or concurrent enrollment; and successful transition to further education, employment, or the military. According to surveyed directors, nearly every state is able to collect individual data on these measures, though they are stronger at the secondary than postsecondary level. The majority of states are also able to disaggregate their data by career cluster, CTE program of study, and subgroups of students.
States use this information most frequently to inform technical assistance and program improvement efforts. For example, Idaho’s CTE Program Quality Initiative rewards excellent program performance by providing incentive funding. Most states also use data to inform state policy and planning, such as Arkansas, which referenced a Fordham study of post-program outcomes for career and technical education students to demonstrate to lawmakers the benefits of completing a sequence of high-quality CTE courses. States like Ohio also publicly report career readiness data via their accountability systems, though this is far more prevalent at the secondary level than the postsecondary. And although there are some outliers, most states seem reluctant to use this information for high-stakes decisions like linking funding with program quality. Less than half use it to transform career pathways.
The report identifies several reasons why states may not be fully leveraging their CTE data. One issue is that leaders don’t trust its quality. Many states rely on self-reported information to measure post-program outcomes. This includes surveys of former students or program participants, which are especially vulnerable to errors, misreporting, and low response rates. There are a large number of states that don’t actively validate and verify the accuracy of their career readiness measures. And many states have disparate and disconnected data systems, which makes it difficult to track young people during transitions from high school to postsecondary education and the workforce.
Improving the quality and reliability of CTE data is critical. The report recommends that states move away from self-reported information and toward more reliable sources. North Carolina does this by tracking the attainment of industry-recognized credentials through the institutions that grant them. States should also embed rigorous protocols for validating their data. Arkansas, for instance, requires schools to get employer validation when participants complete a work-based learning experience. And leaders should work to align definitions, measures, unique identifiers, and collection cycles across programs and disparate systems. Kentucky has done this since 2012, when it established an independent agency with authority over all education, workforce, and labor data.
As states implement the reauthorized Perkins Act, redesigning and aligning data systems will be vital. This reports offers valuable assistance.
SOURCE: “The State of Career Technical Education: Improving Data Quality and Effectiveness,” Advance CTE (April 2019).
On this week’s podcast, Erica Greenberg, senior research associate at the Urban Institute, joins David Griffith and Brandon Wright to discuss her research on the state of early childhood education for the sons and daughters of immigrants. On the Research Minute, Adam Tyner examines teacher pay, staff size, and student outcomes in states with strong and weak unions.
Amber’s Research Minute
Eric Brunner et al., “School Finance Reforms, Teachers’ Unions, and the Allocation of School Resources,” Review of Economics and Statistics (March 2019).