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Following New Orleans' lead on charter-school education

Re-posted from a Washington Post op-ed column, July 1, 2018.

By Emily Langhorne

The big moments of historical importance don’t go unremarked, but quieter milestones often pass with little notice unless we stop to commemorate them and note their significance. On July 1, one of those modest but meaningful events will occur when New Orleans marks a change that might sound like a dry bureaucratic reshuffling, but is in fact a remarkable event in the history of American education.

Recall that nearly 13 years ago, one of the effects of the Hurricane Katrina cataclysm was to largely wipe out the city’s abysmal public schools. New Orleans’s educational system was essentially rebuilt from the ground up as a laboratory for charter schools — not a school district with a few charters sprinkled among traditional institutions, but an almost wholly charter-filled system largely run by the state of Louisiana.

The Recovery School District experiment proved successful; New Orleans public schools have improved faster than those of any other city in the nation over the past decade. But 80 percent of the schools were run by the state’s Recovery School District. An indication of the RSD’s success — and of New Orleans’s resurgence as a thriving metropolitan center — is the state’s decision to hand over responsibility for the school district to a locally elected school board on July 1.

The school board will then oversee a district where 98 percent of students attend a public charter school. No other school district in America comes close to that distinction. By 2020, the last two district-operated schools will have converted to charters, and the Orleans Parish School Board will oversee the nation’s first school district composed entirely of charter schools.

The contrast with pre-Katrina education in New Orleans is dramatic. In 2005, Orleans Parish public schools ranked next-to-last in performance among Louisiana’s 68 parishes. In 2004, 60 percent of public school students in New Orleans attended a school with a performance score in the bottom 10 percent of the state.

The schools needed change; the district needed reform. Progress would come from a most unlikely starting point. Hurricane Katrina’s flooding and winds damaged schools, destroyed materials and displaced 64,000 students. The damage to school buildings alone was estimated at more than $800 million. Even before the storm, the district was broke, and had been looking for a $50 million line of credit just to meet payroll.

Louisiana turned this dire situation into an opportunity. In 2003, the governor and state legislature had created a Recovery School District to take over the state’s worst public schools, including five in New Orleans, which the RSD had turned into charters. After the storm, the legislature placed all but 17 of New Orleans’s 127 public schools in the RSD. In 2006, when 25,000 students returned to the city’s public schools, 54 percent enrolled in a charter.

Over the next nine years, the RSD handed virtually all its schools over to charter operators, and academic progress surged.

In 2004, 54 percent of public high school students graduated within four years. In 2017, 73 percent did. In 2004, only 37 percent of high school graduates enrolled in college. In 2017, 61 percent of graduates did. Before the storm, only 33 percent of students scored at grade level or above on state exams. By 2017, that number had increased to 59 percent, an improvement rate almost three times as fast as the state’s average.

During the transformation between 2004 and 2017, one characteristic has remained constant: the majority of students in New Orleans are economically disadvantaged.

The Orleans Parish School Board won’t directly operate schools; school leaders will handle day-to-day operations at charters, so those who know students best will make the decisions that affect their learning. But the district will still play a central role, setting policy and overseeing school quality. It will authorize new charters and hold existing schools accountable for performance, replicating successful ones and replacing those that fail with stronger operators. The board will also oversee the distribution of resources and facilities, trying to ensure equal opportunity for all families. And it will run the citywide enrollment system, called OneApp.

Traditional public-school systems are often bureaucratic behemoths, with administration costs sapping funds that would be better dedicated to students. By contrast, in New Orleans, the district’s central office and budget will be a lean operation, required by state charter-school law to devote 98 percent of funds directly to schools, spending only 2 percent on central office administration — because those running schools, not central office staff, know best how to educate children.

As charter schools proliferate across the country, their organization into New Orleans-style charter-only school districts under local control may be the next step in the continuing evolution of American education.

Emily Langhorne is an education policy analyst at the Progressive Policy Institute.


Behind the $35 Million Gift to Launch a Charter School in a Struggling City

Re-posted from a story in Inside Philanthropy

July 8, 2018

The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation recently pledged $35 million to build and launch a charter school in Flint, Michigan. The K-8 school will eventually be located on the grounds of the Flint Cultural Center and enroll up to 650 students, who will have access to the institution's offerings, including the art and music museums, the public library and the planetarium.

It’s a large gift from a funder that doesn’t see itself as a backer of the charter movement. But the opportunity to help create the Flint Cultural Center Academy was too promising to pass up, said Neal Hegarty, the foundation’s vice president of programs.

“To be clear, the foundation isn’t supporting a charter school movement in Flint,” Hegarty said. “We’re supporting the development of a specific charter school that will enable students to benefit from the expertise and amenities available through the Cultural Center institutions. There’s nothing else like it in our region, and we think kids in Flint and Genesee County deserve to have that kind of unique learning opportunity.”

As we've reported, Mott is best known within K-12 circles for investing in after-school programs. It's been a pioneering leader in this space for decades, and remains a stalwart after-school funder. In turn, this work is part of a broader education portfolio that also includes youth engagement, which the foundation defines as supporting meaningful ways for kids to participate in school, communities and economies. The access students will have to the neighboring cultural institutions fits with that goal.

At first glance, $35 million seems like a large gift. And it is—it’s more than half the funds Mott has put into Flint’s education system since 2016—but it’s proportionate to the costs of building a school from the ground up, Hegarty said. The gift covers the price of designing, building and outfitting the school. The foundation wanted to cover the full cost, so that Flint’s cultural institutions wouldn’t have to find additional donors.

The school will join the city’s robust charter ecosystem. More than half of Flint’s students attend charter schools, according to numbers released by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in 2017. At 55 percent in charter schools, Flint beat out neighboring Detroit for the highest percentage of students enrolled in charters. Nationally, the city is second only to New Orleans, which replaced its traditional public school district entirely with charter schools following Hurricane Katrina.

Hegarty attributes the high enrollment to a few factors, including state-level policies, family preference and fall-out from the water crisis. Despite the higher than usual charter enrollment, Mott doesn’t prioritize charters in its Flint-based education giving, he said.

“In Flint, the Mott Foundation is working to strengthen the entire education continuum—from cradle to college and career. We support educational opportunity in many different forms, including early childhood education, our public K-12 system, after-school programs, early and middle college, job training, and post-secondary education,” Hegarty said.

Since 2016, the foundation has poured about $60 million into Flint’s education system. About $22.4 million went to support Flint Community Schools, the city’s public school district.

Mott supports work across the country and internationally, but has also been one of Flint’s most stalwart local funders. The foundation has poured more than $1 billion into the city—about a third of the funder’s total giving—since Charles Mott, a co-founder of General Motors, started the giving operation in 1926.

Despite these investments, conditions in Flint mostly seem to have become worse in recent decades. The dynamic illustrates the limits of philanthropy when it comes to fighting entrenched poverty and structural forces. Flint owes its hardship to several system-level challenges. The city lost jobs to automation and overseas competition. At the same time, segregation and exclusionary zoning prevented African Americans from moving to the suburbs as the urban center collapsed, trapping them in the city. The 2009 financial crisis exacerbated the city’s decline.

Flint's deep troubles were epitomized by the highly visible water crisis that unfolded in 2015. Despite strong reservations about stepping in to shore up a failing public system, Mott was one of the foundations to respond to the crisis, along with Carnegie, Ford, Kresge, Robert Wood Johnson and W.K. Kellogg foundations, and several others.

At the time, foundation President Ridgway White expressed concern about philanthropy coming to the rescue when public systems fail. White made clear that he felt the crisis was government-caused and needed a government fix. He added that long-term giving focused on growth and potential shouldn’t be ignored in the face of an immediate crisis.

“While helping Flint residents meet immediate needs related to lead contamination, we also must think ahead about how to help the community emerge from the crisis. We must not only repair harm but restore hope,” White wrote.

To that end, in 2016 the foundation pledged $100 million over five years to help Flint emerge from the crisis. The $60 million in education giving was part of that $100 million promise. With the new gift to support the Flint Cultural Center Academy, the Mott Foundation continues to look to the future.


Education narrative favoring wealthier, whiter states was just proven wrong

Re-posted from an op ed column in The Hill.

By Stan Liebowitz and Matt Kelly

July 5, 2018

State education rankings published by organizations such as U.S. News and World Report or Education Week are highly influential. When education is discussed, whether the focus is teacher pay, unions, common core standards, or school choice, state education rankings are invariably used as a political cudgel.

These rankings have spurred a well-known consensus: states in the Northeast and upper Midwest have the best education systems. The worst states, supposedly, are fiscally conservative right-to-work states in the South and Southwest. It would seem parents must force politicians to spend into bankruptcy or else doom their illiterate, innumerate children to a menial existence.

But these conventional rankings fail to make an “apples to apples” comparison between states. Students arrive in class on the first day of school with different backgrounds, endowments, and life experiences, often related to race and socioeconomic status. Conventional rankings largely ignore these differing characteristics by combining scores on student achievement tests into an all-encompassing statewide average. This blunt over-aggregation skews school rankings in favor of wealthier, whiter states.

Conventional rankings also include metrics that aren’t directly related to learning. Some conventional rankings, like Education Week’s ranking, erroneously treat government spending on education as a purely positive factor, rewarding states that spend lavishly regardless of actual student performance.

We recently completed a study of state education systems and found that fixing these problems changes rankings substantially. Conventional rankings are thus severely flawed, as is the consensus of which states educate best.

We graded states based on how well they educate each type of student; i.e., how much “value added” in learning they create. Our analysis utilized the same Department of Education student achievement test data included in most conventional state rankings, but removed metrics unrelated to learning.

Crucially, we disaggregated scores by grade, race, and test subject in order to more accurately measure the value added by state educational systems.

This difference in approach is best understood with an actual example. When students are treated as a single monolithic group, Iowa students outscore their Texas counterparts in Math, Reading, and Science for fourth and eighth-grade students. But when students are disaggregated into major ethnic groups, the results reverse.

In fact, every ethnic group in Texas scores higher than their Iowa counterparts. In all, disaggregated Texas students surpass disaggregated Iowa students in 19 of the 20 exams they take in common.

It’s ludicrous to say Iowa outranks Texas when all student groups score higher in Texas. But that is the story traditional rankings would have you believe.

This Texas-Iowa example is no isolated fluke. The rankings of many states flip dramatically when our more appropriate methodology is used. In our ranking of education quality, Virginia, Massachusetts, Florida, New Jersey, and Texas rate highest, in descending order.

We also find that unionization negatively impacts student performance. Our regression analysis suggested that if a state went from having the weakest teacher unions to the strongest, its quality rank would decline by between 22 to 11 ranking positions. The percentage of students in charter schools also has a strong positive impact on student performance in some of our regressions.

We further refine our ranking to account for the efficiency of education spending. Rankings should not reward extravagant spending without corresponding gains in student performance, yet many do.

Consider New York and Tennessee, both states score similarly on our quality ranking (31st, and 30th, respectively) but New York spends three times as much. Whereas, Education Week’s ranking rewards New York for its lavish spending, our efficiency ranking sensibly penalizes such excess. We adjust spending to take account of different costs-of-living in each state.

After adjusting our ranking of education quality to account for spending efficiency, Florida, Texas, Virginia, Arizona, and Georgia lead the pack. All of these states are southern or southwestern, with right to work laws and very low levels of unionization, the very opposite of the conventional narrative.

These results are based on a much sounder analysis than traditional rankings. Evidently, a major reevaluation of the policies contributing to student performance is badly needed. We hope our improved methodology can help guide that important effort.

Stan Liebowitz is an endowed professor and director of the Center for the Analysis of Property Right and Innovation (CAPRI) and Matt Kelly is a research fellow at the Colloquium for the Advancement of Free-Enterprise Education (CAFÉ), both in the Naveen Jindal School of Management at the University of Texas at Dallas. Their report is available at


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