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Re-posted from a Tallahassee Democrat op-ed column.

September 21, 2018

By Lane Wright

Amendment 8 may not be on the ballot come November, but we can’t ignore the issue it was trying to address.

Charter schools have a legitimate place in our state. They’re written into our laws because they give families a public-school option — and hope — when their zoned school doesn’t meet their needs.

But they have to get approved by someone before charter school leaders can find a building, hire a principal and teachers, and let students come to learn. In Florida, that’s exclusively the job of local school boards.

Unfortunately, local school boards are becoming increasingly hostile to any charter school. That opposition isn’t motivated so much from the public — 44 percent of people support charters and only 35 percent oppose, according to a recent EducationNext poll. The real pressure comes from the politically powerful teachers unions.

And it isn’t just happening in Florida. Greg Richmond, president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, says in 2013, local school boards approved 56 percent of charter schools, but by 2016, that number had dropped to 41 percent.

When your state is one of the 35 that offers an alternative path for charter schools to get authorized, that might not be a huge deal. But in Florida, your local school board is the only game in town. If they're not approving charter schools, nobody is.

In cases where the charter school appeals to the state and gets approved, it sets up an adversarial relationship between the school and the district that tried to block it.

That’s like working for a boss who was forced to hire you after doing everything in his power not to.

Leon and Palm Beach counties have had some of the most notable headlines recently as they’ve rejected charter school applications only to have the schools approved later by an appeal to the state.

I attended the meeting in May where the Leon County School Board and Superintendent Rocky Hanna bent over backwards to deny Tallahassee Classical School’s charter application, even though the school met every legal requirement.

I watched Hanna acknowledge his defeat and grudgingly welcome Tallahassee Classical in front of TV cameras earlier this month.

But just because he says it's welcome, doesn’t mean the district’s actions will match. The School Board can easily slow-walk the process of negotiating the contract and making the Tallahassee Classical official, which would cause delays in hiring teachers and staff, and making other arrangements to start school on time.

Delays will cost the school money. Since charters already get less money than traditional schools, that can put them in a serious financial pinch.

Nobody likes this system as it is now.

We need a change in Florida. Charter schools need an alternative path to getting a green light, not for the charter schools’ sake, but for the sake of the kids and families who need something different.

<em>Lane Wright lives in Tallahassee with his wife and three kids. He’s a former press secretary to Gov. Rick Scott and currently works for a national education advocacy organization.</em>


Analysis: The Best High-Poverty Public Schools in Florida – 2018
Re-posted from an op-ed column in The Capitolist, Tallahassee.

by Lane Wright

Florida’s department of education judges schools on an A-F scale. But not all As are created equal. I’m not trying to take anything away from higher-income areas, but it’s not as hard to help rich and middle class kids succeed in school as it is to help students from poor families. And historically, low-income students, along with black and Hispanic students, English learners, and students with disabilities have struggled compared to their white and well-enough-off peers.

It’s a nice accomplishment for every school that gets an A, but the schools getting As while serving students with the highest needs should really get our attention and high praise. I also think we should be studying them to find out what they’re getting right, or at least find out how their students are overcoming such major obstacles.

I wanted to identify these schools. For the sake of simplicity, I defined “high-poverty” as a school with 95-100 percent of its students fitting into the “economically disadvantaged” category. Then I filtered out all but the A schools and ranked them by which schools scored the highest percentage of total possible points. Obviously I could have had a broader definition of “high-poverty,” and I could have expanded it to A and B schools, but I wanted to put a special focus on the best schools who have the biggest challenges.

The Results

In Florida, 66 high-poverty schools scored an A on the 2018 report card. To put that in context, of 1,028 A-rated schools in the state, 66 (6.4 percent) are high-poverty schools. Also, compared to all 999 high-poverty schools in the state, 66 (6.6 percent) got As. If you’re curious, 183 schools from this high-poverty set got Bs, 556 got Cs, 145 got Ds, and 26 got Fs.

All of the A schools deserve to be commended (B schools too), but I wanted to highlight a few of the A schools that stood out above the rest.

St. Peter’s Academy (charter), Indian River Demographics 100 percent economically disadvantaged 87.1 percent minority Proficiency Levels: English Language Arts 86 percent of students are at or above proficiency Math 84 percent of students are at or above proficiency Science 76 percent of students are at or above proficiency 91 and 90 percent of the lowest-performing students improved their scores over the previous year in reading and math respectively. What makes them stand out? Got the highest score (percent-wise) compared to other schools with 95-100 percent economically disadvantaged students Jumped from a C in 2017 to an A this year Highest growth among its lowest-performing students

Dr. William A Chapman Elementary, Miami-Dade Demographics 97.7 percent economically disadvantaged 97.5 percent minority Proficiency Levels English Language Arts 70 percent of students are at or above proficiency Math 83 percent of students are at or above proficiency Science 77 percent of students are at or above proficiency 67 and 93 percent of the lowest-performing students improved their scores over the previous year in reading and math respectively. What makes them stand out? Got A grades two years in a row, rising up from a C in 2016. It’s the highest performing non-charter school in the high-poverty group.

Greensboro Elementary School, Gadsden Demographics 100 percent economically disadvantaged 89 percent minority Proficiency Levels English Language Arts 44 percent of students are at or above proficiency Math 75 percent of students are at or above proficiency 95 percent of the lowest-performing students improved their scores over the previous year in reading and math. What makes them stand out? Got A grade after two years at a C Highest percentage among high-poverty rural schools.

Keystone Heights Elementary School, Clay Demographics 100 percent economically disadvantaged 9.1 percent minority Proficiency Levels: English Language Arts 67 percent of students are at or above proficiency Math 79 percent of students are at or above proficiency Science 80 percent of students are at or above proficiency 54 and 82 percent of the lowest-performing students improved their scores over the previous year in reading and math respectively. What makes them stand out? Highest performing high-poverty school with mostly white students (90.9 percent white)

Crossroad Academy (charter), Gadsden Demographics 100 percent economically disadvantaged 98.7 percent minority Proficiency Levels: English Language Arts 57 percent of students are at or above proficiency Math 64 percent of students are at or above proficiency Science 55 percent of students are at or above proficiency 61 and 62 percent of the lowest-performing students improved their scores over the previous year in reading and math respectively. What makes them stand out? 100 percent graduation rate 100 percent of students scored on an college-credit exam

Mater Academy High School of International Studies (charter), Miami-Dade Demographics 96.2 percent economically disadvantaged 96 percent minority Proficiency Levels: English Language Arts 86 percent of students are at or above proficiency Math 76 percent of students are at or above proficiency 77 and 64 percent of students improved their scores over the previous year in reading and math respectively. What makes them stand out? Best high-poverty charter high school

Pine Island Elementary School, Miami-Dade Demographics 96.2 percent economically disadvantaged 35.3 percent minority Proficiency Levels: English Language Arts 67 percent of students are at or above proficiency Math 84 percent of students are at or above proficiency Science 72 percent of students are at or above proficiency 47 and 63 percent of the lowest-performing students improved their scores over the previous year in reading and math respectively. What makes them stand out? Longest A-streak – 20 years in a row getting A grades.

The full data set, which was extracted from the Florida Department of Education’s School Grades spreadsheet, can be seen here: . It’s also important to note that these ratings are based heavily on test scores which don’t tell us the whole story about a school’s quality. But standardized tests can still shine a useful spotlight and guide us to schools like these that are helping students with the greatest obstacles succeed in school.

Lane Wright is Director of Policy Analysis at Education Post.


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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