Ed experts mum on improving schools without raising taxes

By PG Veer
Watchdog Arena
August 3, 2015

With the school year just on the horizon, WalletHub published its annual report on states with the best and worst education systems. What catches the eye in this 2015 report is the failure of the experts to answer an important question: What can state and local policymakers do to improve their school systems without raising taxes?

Considering the severe budgetary constraints most states are experiencing, especially because of Medicaid expansion under Obamacare, cost-saving suggestions and solutions would be welcomed.

One possible solution would be to hold ineffective teachers accountable for student performance, even when they have tenure. On that subject, Massachusetts shines, ranking well above the national average, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality. At the other end of the spectrum, states like California, Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, DC, which Wallet Hub ranks among the worse states, have rather poor standards for firing low-performing teachers – when they do have standards.

Another performance booster that could cut costs is school choice. School choice allows parents more options beyond the traditional neighboring school and may actually improve their children’s education, especially for low-income groups in urban areas. Despite depending on public funds for students, charter schools can end up saving money for taxpayers. Since most states don’t fund charter schools capital improvements, administrators are the ones paying for its upkeep. And since most of their teachers are not unionized, they can keep their costs down.

In the Center for Education Reform’s Parent Power Index, which rates states based on how much each empowers parents to make decisions regarding their child’s education, Massachusetts would do well to improve its school choice options as the PPI ranks the state 30th. Its very limited charter school options and virtual school options weighed the state down.

Wallet Hub does show a weak correlation between spending and outcomes in its 2015 report, it isn’t everything. Louisiana, despite its ranking of 47th by Wallet Hub, ranked seventh on the PPI, thanks to a very vast network of school vouchers, online, and charter schools. Massachusetts does spend the most per student (over $14,000) and has the best results, but New York is #2 in spending and has the 34th best education system overall – Alaska respectively ranks 4th in spending with an overall ranking of51.

Utah is only underspent per student ($6,200) by Arizona while having the 14th best education system. Utah also ranks at number six on the PPI. Could money influence such a discrepancy between spending and outcomes?

This article was written by a contributor of Watchdog Arena, Franklin Center’s network of writers, bloggers, and citizen journalists.

NEWSWIRE: July 28, 2015

Vol. 17, No. 30

KATRINA LESSONS. “New Orleans isn’t perfect, but there are lessons that can be learned from its education reforms,” writes Jason Russell in a Washington Examiner piece detailing a dysfunctional education system in the Big Easy, and how charter schools have helped turn it around since Hurricane Katrina. Stories of schools going above and beyond after the storm hit are numerous, but take for example the Hynes school, which would have taken five years to reopen had it stayed as a traditional district school. However because the school’s leadership decided to switch it to an independently-run public charter school, it took just one year to reopen and start serving students in need of a place to be educated. “The devastation really shed light on how dysfunctional the system really was,” CER President Kara Kerwin told Jason as he sifted through hundreds of pages of CER documents surrounding efforts to help misplaced students. But it shouldn’t have taken an act of God to do something about it,” Kerwin finished. As the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches, we must continue to pose the question of why we are still so tied to a one-size-fits-all system that isn’t working for all kids when we have examples like this of how freedom and flexibility have helped rebuild and revitalize.

VOUCHER WIN. North Carolina’s Supreme Court ruling of the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program constitutional last Thursday is a major win not only for students and families in North Carolina, but a major win nationally, affirming indeed that parents and students should have power over decisions about how their children are educated, regardless of their race or zip code. While there’s no doubt more needs to be done in North Carolina and across the nation to improve Parent Power, as just six states earn scores above 80 percent on CER’s Parent Power Index, this is undoubtedly a step in the right direction.

UNION DECLINE. The National Education Association (NEA) has lost 10 percent of its membership in the last five years, according to an analysis from Education Intelligence Agency (EIA). From a pool of perhaps a half-million possible members in the last 15 years, the NEA has added no more than 5,000 members. Despite this, NEA dues revenue has increased. Perhaps this is why more teachers are speaking out about the unfairness of having to pay a “fair share” payment when opting out of a union they feel does not represent their interests or values. The good news for teachers, however, is that persistence can pay off, literally. The young teacher from Massachusetts Newswire told readers about a few weeks ago, who did not want to join the union but had $600 deducted from her paycheck from the union anyway, got all of her money back. We have a feeling this #optout movement isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, as teachers deserve to have control over their hard-earned paychecks just as much as parents deserve to have control over how their children are educated.

SUMMER READING. Newswire is going on vacation next week, so be sure to get your fix by reading this edition, in addition to suggested books below to balance out your summer vacation reading (and don’t forget if you buy them through AmazonSmile, Amazon will donate 0.5 percent of the purchase to CER):

A LIGHT SHINES IN HARLEM. Just named a winner of the prestigious 2015 Phillis Wheatley Book Award, A Light Shines in Harlem, written by Mary C. Bounds, is a must-read of what it took to open the first charter school in New York, the Sisulu-Walker Charter School of Harlem. The book includes a foreword by Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker, Sisulu-Walker co-founder and civil rights hero who served as Martin Luther King’s chief of staff and head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) during the 1950s and early 60s. Walker writes that the work of Dr. King has far-reaching meaning and can be applied to the charter school movement today, because every child deserves an excellent education, and “it is education that will guarantee that segregation and second-class citizenship will never return!”

LOST CLASSROOM, LOST COMMUNITY. This book, written by Margaret F. Brinig and Nicole Stelle Garnett, focuses on the shift in the urban education landscape, with more than 1,600 Catholic schools closing in the last two decades while public charter schools have grown. Charter schools are undoubtedly a positive contribution to U.S. education, but the closure of Catholic schools is not. Just as charter schools have a ripple effect, this book reveals data showing Catholic schools have a spillover effect on neighborhoods, with a 33 percent lower crime rate in neighborhoods where Catholic schools remain open compared to neighborhoods where they had closed. As CER noted in a 2011 policy paper about saving Catholic schools, a variety of excellent, diverse schooling options are what will make our education system strong. We need a portfolio of different kinds of education options for parents to choose from, which is why we need to expand opportunities for students to attend Catholic and private schools as much as any other kind of school. Because even amidst the nearly three million voucher and tax-credit scholarships made possible by state legislatures, ten percent of these opportunities at most are being utilized by students.

2014 NEA Membership Numbers

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Mike Antonucci of the Education Intelligence Agency (EIA), a one-man contract research firm focused on the inner workings of the teachers’ unions, has compiled a state-by-state chart of membership numbers for the National Education Association (NEA).

The chart contains active and total membership numbers for 2013-14, along with one-year and five-year changes to see how membership numbers have changed over time. Active members are employed teachers, professionals and education support workers. Total membership includes retirees, students, substitutes and all others.

Since last year, the NEA lost 42,000 active members, bringing the union’s total losses among active public school employees to more than 310,000 (10.7%) over the past five years.

Click here for PDF of State-by-State chart. Screen Shot 2015-07-27 at 5.09.18 PM

The charter solution

by Jason Russell
Washington Examiner
July 27, 2015

In the early morning hours of Aug. 29, 2005, Tom and Carolyn Crosby drove through the night to their cottage by Florida’s Gulf Coast to escape Hurricane Katrina. At 6 a.m., they arrived, turned on the television and found good news: The worst of the hurricane was supposed to miss New Orleans.

They went to sleep, ready to drive straight back to New Orleans as soon as possible to reopen their charter school, the International School of Louisiana. But at 2 p.m., they awoke to terrible news.

“There was a whole new world,” Tom told the Washington Examiner.

Ten-foot floods in some neighborhoods. Winds nearly 100 miles per hour. More than 1 million homes damaged and 1,833 people killed.

Economically, Hurricane Katrina — which hit 10 years ago on Aug. 23 — is the worst natural disaster the United States has ever seen. It caused $151 billion in damages. The next-costliest disaster since 1980 caused less than half as much damage, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Between the immediate evacuations and those in the hurricane’s aftermath, Katrina displaced more than 1 million people.

Among those spread across the country were 372,000 school-age children, enough to fill about 15,000 classrooms. They needed to find schools. Thousands of those students came from low-income families and were already at risk of falling behind or dropping out before their lives were thrown into chaos.

The nationwide charter school community, Tom and Carolyn Crosby included, wasn’t going to sit by and let that happen.

After the storm

Charter schools aren’t traditional public schools, but they are funded by the government. They don’t charge tuition, and they cannot be selective about whom they admit. When a space opens up, a new student is selected though a random lottery system. But compared to traditional public schools, charters have more independence in their operations and curriculum, which is why so many families find charter schools desirable.

By the end of the first day after Katrina hit New Orleans, the Crosbys managed to confirm that half of their students and staff were safe. By the end of the first week, all were accounted for except for two or three students. Eventually, they confirmed that all their students and staff had survived, but they were scattered across the country.

With their lives turned upside down, and unsure whether their home in New Orleans was still standing, the Crosbys set out to reopen their school as fast as possible.

In the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, most New Orleans residents didn’t know whether their homes, relatives, friends or jobs still existed. Given all the uncertainty, it would have been easy and even understandable for them to put off questions about children’s education until everything else was settled. But the national charter community did not want that to happen, so it set out to make educational arrangements as seamless as possible.

“All across the country, schools just responded,” Kara Kerwin, now president of the Center for Education Reform, told the Examiner. “It was a nationwide effort to help families,” and charters were able to do it because of their independence and agility. Kerwin provided access to hundreds of pages of emails and documents from that period. They tell the story of the charter movement’s efforts to help families in the wake of Katrina.

Within days of the hurricane, charter schools from California to Idaho to Pennsylvania were offering open seats to evacuated students. The school year had just begun, and all of the arrangements had to be made on the fly. The Los Angeles Leadership Academy had 10 spots open in the sixth, seventh and 10th grades. It worked with local churches to make sure evacuee families had homes. In Florida, 1,500 seats were available across 23 schools.

To connect evacuee families with schools, the Center for Education Reform coordinated with other groups and schools to set up a national phone hotline. Eight days after Katrina hit New Orleans, the phones opened. It ran seven days a week from 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. The center ran public service announcements over the radio to spread the word. The center coordinated the hotline, and businesses donated to support it financially. People even called in to the hotline to offer their teaching skills or to help in whatever way they could.

Staff from the Shekinah Learning Institute, which has multiple campuses in San Antonio, recruited students at the Astrodome, which was being used to shelter thousands of displaced families.

By Sept. 14, a new school was set up in the Baton Rouge River Center. The school served about 50 evacuee children, although that number changed as some families left and new ones entered. The Children’s Charter School and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation each put up $20,000 to get the shelter school off the ground.

Before Katrina

Before Katrina, the public schools in New Orleans were a shameful example of government incompetence. Then-state Rep. Steve Scalise called the system, run by the Orleans Parish School Board, “one of the worst-run public school systems in the country,” in an email to his constituents.

“Before Katrina, New Orleans had what many people would argue was the most-challenged school system in America,” Kenneth Campbell, who was director of charter schools for the Louisiana Department of Education from 2007-10, told the Examiner. Campbell said academic performance and expectations for students were incredibly low.

Before Katrina, barely more than half of New Orleans students graduated. In the 2013-14 school year, three out of four graduated — right in line with Louisiana’s statewide graduation rate.

Nearly two-thirds of New Orleans students attended a failing school before Katrina. Today, just 7 percent do.

In the 2004-05 school year, the average ACT score in New Orleans lagged the state average by 2.8 points. At the close of the school year in 2014, the gap had narrowed to 0.8 points.

The quality of education has dramatically improved since the storm. So have the district’s other problems, which were huge. One was official corruption — bribery, extortion, bank larceny, kickbacks and more — so pervasive that the FBI had its own desk set up within the Orleans Parish School Board offices. Just a couple of examples: One middle school teacher pleaded guilty and another was convicted of conspiracy for altering payroll records to get extra cash. Two other school workers were convicted and another pleaded guilty in the same scheme.

“It was a system that was kind of out of control in a lot of different ways,” Campbell said. “It certainly didn’t have a vision towards improvement.”

“You had a system that was academically bankrupt, it was financially bankrupt and it was facilities-wise, bankrupt. That was before the storm,” Paul Pastorek, Louisiana’s superintendent of education from 2007-11, said at the 2015 American Federation for Children National Policy Summit.

After Katrina, the whole system had to be quickly rebuilt from the ground up, both in terms of facilities and student populations. Administrators had no idea how many students or teachers would return. But that didn’t stop reformers from setting ambitious goals: an all-choice school district with high-quality schools.

Rushing to rebuild

Before Katrina, the International School of Louisiana had two campuses. At one campus, the school rented rooms in a synagogue in New Orleans’ Lakeview neighborhood. The flooding in Lakeview reached 10 feet in some areas. Flooding was so bad that a pit in the synagogue’s worship area had wild fish living inside it a full month after the storm. The synagogue was eventually torn down.

The other campus building was flooded with at least five feet of water. The building survived, but it was in no shape to serve students at the time. So the Crosbys set out to find new grounds.

A parent from the school had been volunteering at a church in Kenner, just outside New Orleans. The church agreed to rent out its Sunday school classrooms and its parking lot, which was used as a playground and a site for trailers to be used as additional classrooms.

The Crosbys’ efforts were slowed by bureaucratic red tape. For example, the school didn’t have any children with disabilities, but government regulations still required ramps for every trailer. The Federal Emergency Management Agency at first agreed to pay for the ramps, then reneged. “That was a big expense,” Tom said.

Every physical improvement required a bid from at least three contractors. But contractors were in such high demand that they often would not submit bids without receiving hundreds of dollars in payment, and there was often a months-long wait until work could begin.

Despite all the obstacles, the International School of Louisiana reopened to 75 students on Oct. 31, just 63 days after Katrina struck New Orleans. It was the first public school to reopen, four weeks before any traditional public school. All of the students had been ones that attended the school before Katrina, with more returning every day.

In mid-October, the city-run school district decided to reopen its first schools as charters. The decision came despite ferocious opposition. At the public meeting where the decision was approved, critics said reopening schools as charters was akin to a “public lynching.”

Critics were concerned about the process: An executive order from the governor waived several rules for the charters, some said they didn’t have enough time to review the proposal to switch to charters, others just didn’t want to hand over public schools to be operated by someone other than the locally-elected school board. Another critic accused the district of “giving away the schools” while dead bodies were still being counted.

By November, the state-run Recovery School District would take over 114 of 131 schools run by the OPSB. The Hynes School was one that reopened as an independently-run charter school within the district.

“[Before Katrina], the school was definitely a place of great academic excellence, although the building suffered a lot of deferred maintenance,” Michelle Douglas, now the principal of Hynes, told the Examiner. Even before the storm, the roofs leaked and halls were used as classrooms. Then Katrina hit, Lakeview flooded and it took Douglas over a week to get back to Hynes, where she had just become an assistant principal. “We just found it completely devastated with seven or eight feet of water.” The building had been stripped of its copper by thieves. It was eventually torn down years later.

In the immediate aftermath, the Hynes School needed a new campus, and it was up to Douglas to find it.

Adjusting to a new normal

The Crosbys had the International School of Louisiana back up and running, but growing pains remained.

FEMA initially told them it could reimburse the school for trailers, plumbing, electricity, the handicap walkways and more. Months later, FEMA reversed course and told the Crosbys they weren’t eligible for any FEMA funds, since their previous leases didn’t hold them responsible for the cost of hurricane repairs.

They weren’t able to hire their English teachers back, so the Crosbys taught the subject themselves. After-school programs took on an extra importance, because parents commuting back from the city were usually delayed by severe highway damage.

At the end of the school year, the Crosbys decided to resign from school administration, although they continued teaching. “With all that, and all the headaches and everything like that, we both say it was our best year of teaching ever,” Carolyn said. “The parents were out of this world, the kids were great, it just felt good.”

Douglas, of the Hynes School, also knows the struggle of working with FEMA. “When you rebuild with a FEMA project, there are many stipulations, there are many requirements,” she said. “There is soil testing. There’s a number of public charrettes, if you will, to have input in what the building should look like.”

Hynes would overcome those barriers to become the first OPSB-rebuilt school in January 2012.

Katrina forced the school to close for the rest of the school year, but it would reopen in August 2006 on two different campuses in New Orleans’ Uptown neighborhood. “We had nothing. We had no furniture, we had no books,” Douglas said. Staff was slim, too: teachers, a janitor, a secretary and herself.

Besides the physical obstacles, there were emotional ones, too. Twenty-eight Hynes staff members lost everything in Katrina. Across the system, schools were dealing with students who returned without their parents. One out of five students in New Orleans was not living at home with his or her parents. Every year when hurricane season began, students lived in fear that another Katrina-level disaster was on its way. “Those kids were challenged beyond belief, and yet they did amazingly well in academic achievement,” Pastorek said.

Extracurriculars were part of the Hynes method to helping kids heal — a welcome distraction from the sad state of New Orleans. Clubs, sports and other activities gave kids something to do while playgrounds were still being rebuilt.

Staff healed by investing all of their time and emotion into Hynes. “This is how we were dealing with our grief,” Douglas said. “We just threw ourselves into this project. Whatever we had to do, we did. And it was hard. But when you have nothing, you’re willing to risk it all, because you have nothing.”

That included switching from a district-operated traditional public school to an independently-operated charter school. Had Hynes stayed under district operations, it would have been closed for five school years instead of one.

“We’ve done it all,” she said. “We’ve moved twice. We’ve shared with two different schools. We have rebuilt a school. And now we stand proud, with 681 students, a pretty significant waiting list, and this is who we are.”

Today, charters flourish

Despite the mass devastation of 2005, signs that Lakeview was once flooded with over 10 feet of water are scarce today. The suburban neighborhood is filled with homes, grassy yards, restaurants, shopping centers and everything else one would expect under normal conditions. Perhaps the only distinguishing factor is that almost every building seems to have been built in the last 10 years.

A high wall and a small road separate Hynes Charter School from the Orleans Avenue Canal, the only one of three New Orleans drainage canals that held during Katrina. Today, the school is located in the same area that its old building stood before Katrina.

The new school building has features that would make many schools jealous, but Douglas insists that the secret behind Hynes’ success is its school pride. “Building that school spirit out of the classroom only enhanced our experience in the classroom,” Douglas said. That extends to the parents, as well.

The school holds events such as picnics and assemblies to build a sense of community. That way, parents don’t just see their child’s teachers once a year at a parent-teacher conference.

That involvement reaches into the classroom. Dawn Lobell, a teacher at Hynes, said she’s been teaching for 17 years but that Hynes is the first place where she knows the parents of every single student. “We are a part of their family now,” Lobell told the Examiner.

The results at Hynes have been nothing short of miraculous. In the 2013-14 school year, nine out of 10 Hynes students were at or above grade level proficiency, compared to seven out of 10 across Louisiana. Of the 1,300 public schools in Louisiana, Hynes is in the 92nd percentile on its state report card.

Douglas emphasized that student behavior and character development are just as important as grades. At the end of the school year, students with good behavior at Hynes are eligible for a special field trip. This year, some students went to Sector 6, a giant trampoline playground, or Kidsports, another giant playground. “We were always at about 60 or 70 percent of our kids being eligible to participate. Lately we’re hitting the 90 percent mark,” Douglas said.

Each grade level at Hynes has three sections of students, one of which is a French immersion section. Native speakers from France, Canada, Belgium and Chad lead these sections. Most of the students don’t speak French at home, but by the second grade they are immersed in the language at school, with only two hours a day taught in English.

Disadvantaged students are able to thrive at Hynes. Almost half of the students come from low-income families that are eligible for the federal free or reduced lunch program. Eighty-four percent of those students are at or above grade level, only slightly lower than the 88 percent figure for all students.

One in 10 students is in special education, with 74 percent of them at or above grade level. Each student with special needs gets an individualized educational plan. Hynes accommodates the needs of these students without segregating them from their classmates.

All the students have plenty of space to play during recess. Hynes has built two $200,000 playgrounds — not with FEMA money, but with funds raised from the local community. All of the school’s bumper stickers on cars in the surrounding neighborhoods tell the story of Hynes pride.

Not every school in New Orleans is like Hynes. But with 90 percent of the schools operating as charter schools, they have the flexibility and the potential to achieve what Hynes has. The failing and corrupt old system is gone, and something unquestionably better has replaced it.

“The academic performance of New Orleans’ schools has improved remarkably over the past 10 years,” Patrick Sims and Vincent Rossmeier, two policy analysts from the Tulane University Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives, wrote in a report covering public education in New Orleans since Katrina. “With increasing test scores and graduation rates, everyone involved in education should feel proud of the progress made thus far.”

What’s to come?

There’s no shortage of incredible stories of charter schools going above and beyond to help kids after Katrina. The Knowledge Is Power Program opened its first New Orleans charter school weeks before Katrina. Many of its students evacuated to Houston, enough that KIPP New Orleans West College Prep opened its doors there a month after Katrina.

“A lot of [teachers] within 24 hours of getting the call packed up their car and came to Houston,” Jonathan Bertsch, KIPP New Orleans’ Director of Advocacy, told the Examiner. “We were still in the very early stages of getting the school together, so they didn’t know for sure that they were going to have a teaching job, but they came and wanted to do what they could to help.”

The Houston school’s 400 students had all been evacuated from New Orleans, and came from a variety of schools. The school operated for a couple years while New Orleans was rebuilding.

“It shouldn’t have taken a hurricane. It shouldn’t have taken an act of God to do something about it,” Kerwin said. “The devastation and what happened really shed a light on how dysfunctional the system really was.”

Students that had been almost certainly destined for failure simply by having been born in New Orleans today have the chance to succeed. “There’s nobody that can argue that children are not getting a much better education today than they were getting prior to Hurricane Katrina,” Campbell said.

In May, the first group of kindergartners that started at Hynes after Katrina will graduate the eighth grade and head off to high school. With a long waiting list, Douglas said she’s considering whether Hynes should open a second campus soon.

New Orleans isn’t perfect, but there are lessons that can be learned from its education reforms. The old one-size-fits-all education model is a failure. Flexibility for school leaders can empower them to accomplish amazing things, even in the face of unprecedented adversity. Giving families a choice of where to send their children helps keep schools accountable.

Most importantly, when an education system fails students, don’t wait until God intervenes to fix it.

Statement from The Center for Education Reform on North Carolina Supreme Court’s Ruling Opportunity Scholarships Constitutional

News Release
Washington, D.C.
July 23, 2015

Kara Kerwin, president of The Center for Education Reform (CER), issued the following statement on the North Carolina Supreme Court’s ruling today upholding the constitutionality of the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program:

“This court ruling is a major win for parents and students in North Carolina and across the nation, affirming that parents should ultimately have power over decisions about how their children are educated, regardless of their race or zip code.

“With more than double the applications for scholarships in the first year of the program – approximately 5,500 applications for 2,400 scholarships – parents are making it abundantly clear that they want and demand more power over their children’s education. While there is still much work to be done to ensure all parents have the ability to choose the best education for their child, as North Carolina earns a 72.5 percent on CER’s Parent Power Index, this is a giant step in the right direction for parent empowerment in North Carolina.”

BACKGROUND: The legal challenge to the North Carolina Opportunity Scholarship Program began in 2014, filed by the North Carolina Association of Educators and the North Carolina School Boards Association, with many school boards also joining the challenge to the program’s constitutionality. The Opportunity Scholarship Program was passed in July 2013, with scholarship availability in the amount of up to $4,200 for the 2014-15 school year for students meeting income thresholds.

In D.C., parents risk jail to get students into highly ranked schools

by Moriah Costa
July 23, 2015

D.C. has cracked down on parents lying to city and school officials about where they live, after an increase in tips that families from nearby Maryland and Virginia are illegally enrolling their children.

In the 2014-15 school year, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education saw a 43 percent increase in tips from the prior year.

It’s a result, the agency says, of increased public awareness.

Parents who lie about living in the district risk up to 90 days in jail and can be required to pay back tuition — up to $15,000 a year.

The city has sued two police officers who enrolled their kids in D.C. Public Schools while living outside the district.

The D.C. area is unique when it comes to school choice, and it ranks high for school-choice options. But school options in the surrounding area are limited. Education experts say the lack of school choice could be a leading factor in residency fraud.

“The problem is we haven’t created enough choices or made choice universal for everybody,” said Kara Kerwin, president of the Center for Education Reform.

“Those two states that border D.C. are very similar in their demographics and their population, yet they have done absolutely nothing to provide choice for families,” she said.

The center ranked Virginia 41st and Maryland 39th in its 2014 charter school law rankings. D.C. was first.

The Office of the State Superintendent of Education has handled illegal enrollment since the city passed the Residency Fraud Amendment Act in 2012. The agency hires a private investigator to look into tips it receives from schools, hotlines or online.

During the 2014-15 school year, the office received 88 tips and conducted 70 investigations. Of the 38 cases that were closed, only two students were found to live outside the city.

Residency fraud isn’t unique to D.C., however.

Jason Botel, executive director of school-choice advocacy group Maryland Can, said he knows of numerous cases of parents lying about where they live to get into a good school in Baltimore County. Botel, previously executive director of KIPP Baltimore, said he had some students whose families lied about living in the city so their children could attend his school.

The fact the counties near D.C. have few, if any, charter schools is only driving parents to find other ways to give their kids a good education.

“Maryland is a place where the surrounding counties spend less on education than D.C. does, especially for low-income kids, and there are very few public school choices.”

Irene Holtzman, executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, said the best way to prevent residency fraud is for nearby counties to expand school-choice options.

“Where (students) live is determining where they go to school, and (neighborhood schools) may or may not be what they’re looking for or they may or may not be well-resourced to afford a (private school),” she said.

Maryland has reformed its charter school laws, and Botel thinks the changes will help enhance the choices available. But, he said, if lawmakers really want to expand choice they should allow nonprofits to hire teachers and principals. The law says teachers must be hired through the school district, making hiring difficult and, in turn, stifling innovation, Botel said.

Until policymakers start treating parents as consumers and stop zoning the public school system by zip code, Kerwin says, some families will continue to risk jail time so their children have the chance at a good education.

“Despite all the choices that have been created across the U.S., we still haven’t gotten to that marketplace that school choice promised,” she said.

Capitol Hill rally celebrates ‘school choice champions’

by Jason Russell
Washington Examiner
July 21, 2015

School choice advocates gathered on Capitol Hill Tuesday to rally for educational options and celebrate three members of Congress that PublicSchoolOptions.org has named as Champions of School Choice.

Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C.; Rep. Luke Messer, R-Ind.; and Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., were all awarded small trophies and recognized as Champions of School Choice.

“When you give parents options, when you give them a choice, kids have a better chance,” Scott said. “No one loves their child like their parents, and the results are amazing.” Scott praised the Washington, D.C. Opportunity Scholarships program. Scott said the program has a graduation rate almost twice as high as the District’s traditional public schools and spends only 40 percent per student as much as traditional public schools do.

Messer talked about expanding school choice opportunities for low-income families. “The truth is, in America, you already have school choice, if you can afford it,” Messer said, referring to the ability of wealthy families to afford private school or live in an area with high-quality public schools. “The only real question is, as a country, what are we going to do for everybody else?”

Rokita was unable to attend the event. “I set out four years ago to fight for a commonsense education bill that took Washington out of the way and restored transparency, choice, and flexibility back to our schools,” Rokita said in a statement to the Washington Examiner. “Every student deserves an effective teacher, an engaging classroom, and a quality education. [The Student Success Act] is a step in the right direction and I thank all of the parents and supporters that came to D.C. today to ensure their voices are heard.”

PublicSchoolOptions.org President Tillie Elvrum spoke highly of Scott, Messer and Rokita. “They recognize that parents need options and they trust parents,” Elvrum told the Examiner. “They know that nobody knows a child and what their academic needs are better than a parent.” Elvrum said the three members of Congress listened to what the group had to say and responded by introducing legislation that supports schools.

Cherie Nielsen, a mother of three from Virginia, told the Examiner that she attended the rally to support more school choice options. Nielsen initially homeschooled her children, but then opted for a virtual school. She says Virginia doesn’t have enough school choice options, so her kids were forced to attend public schools starting in the eighth grade.

Kara Kerwin, president of the Center for Education Reform, and Kevin Chavous, an active education reformer and attorney, also spoke at the event. “Money, zip codes and political will should no longer dictate the fundamental right, as parents, to choose what is best for our children,” Kerwin said. “There are 52 million children still trapped in schools without a choice.”

Chavous focused on the effect that parents were having in the school choice movement. “Parents are driving this revolution in education,” Chavous said. “And you know why they’re driving it? Because parents are sick and tired … of being sick and tired.”

PublicSchoolOptions.org is a parent group with 60,000 advocates across the country.

Roughly 75 people attended the rally. Many proudly displayed “I Trust Parents” signs and stickers.

This article was updated on July 22 with a statement from Rokita.

NEWSWIRE: July 21, 2015

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Vol. 17, No. 29

STUDENT RIGHTS, ROUND 2. A second lawsuit in defense of student rights is underway in California, this time under the name Jane Doe, et al. v. Antioch Unified School District, et al. Just as the Vergara v. California suit sought to uphold the constitutional rights of students by reversing unproductive teacher employment practices, the Doe v. Antioch case challenges 13 districts in violation of a state law called the Stull Act that requires teacher evaluations to consider student progress. In 2012, the Los Angeles Unified School District was found in violation of the Stull Act, but three years later, the board and teachers union have yet to agree on how to implement the ruling enforcing the inclusion of student performance in teacher evaluations. As the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board notes, “lawsuits aren’t the best way to improve schools,” but when a Legislature is too controlled by the teachers union and thus repeatedly fails to make changes that would benefit students, “sometimes they’re the only way.”

SOLUTION: CHARTERS. With an already strained and ill-prepared workforce, it’s imperative for the U.S economy that we tackle mediocrity and quickly grow education options to meet the needs of our students. Charter schools can, and should be, part of that solution. Growing at a steady, linear pace over the years, charter school growth could be accelerated to allow charters to play a more central role in U.S. education. Take St. Johns County, Florida, for example, where a school board member calls for a tax increase in order for the district to meet an anticipated 47 percent increase of students expected in the next 10 years. The U.S. already spends more than any industrialized nation on education, and with a less than stellar return on investment with less than 40 percent of students able to read and compute at grade level. Combine this with the fact that the bureaucracy of our traditional education system is not synonymous with speedy, and it’s clear that in order to address the urgency at which our children need excellent schools, we must look at innovative, accountable options like charter schools.

TRUST PARENTS. It was hot out this morning in Washington, D.C., but that didn’t stop school choice advocates, parents, educators, and families from coming together to celebrate school choice at the #ITrustParents rally on the Hill. “Despite the widespread acceptance and rapid growth of school choice, millions of families still do not have the freedom to choose the best education for their child,” The Center for Education Reform (CER) President Kara Kerwin told the audience, stressing the need for more and better education options. The D.C. School Reform Act and the Opportunity Scholarship program brought major changes to D.C. education, Kerwin recalled, offering parents for the first time the freedom and opportunity to choose a better future for their child. Echoing those sentiments, Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) noted that with D.C. vouchers, “for 40 cents on the dollar, you can nearly double the graduation rate.” Choices are creating a ripple effect and improving outcomes for students across America, but just five percent of school-aged students are taking advantage of charter schools or school choice programs. As we approach 2016 elections, we must continue to call on elected officials to stop playing politics and do what’s right: trust parents, because “money, zip codes, and political will should no longer dictate our fundamental right as parents to choose what is best for our own children.” Take action now and encourage others to let elected officials know they should trust parents by texting ITRUSTPARENTS to 52886 or clicking here.

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ICYMI: EVERY CHILD ACHIEVES. In a 87-17 vote, the U.S. Senate passed the Every Child Achieves act last Thursday. Meant to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), more recently known as the No Child Left Behind Act, CER is encouraged by the legislation for reinforcing the principle of local autonomy and state sovereignty, and believes that “along with a strong House bill, will correct the overreach of this and subsequent administrations for years to come.” The House passed its ESEA replacement, called the Student Success Act, eight days before the Senate passed its version, and now both bills will go to conference committee for reconciliation.

Parents group rallies at Capitol for school choice

by Caroline Kelly
The Hill
July 21, 2015

Republican lawmakers joined an advocacy group seeking greater powers for parents to choose their children’s schools in a rally at the Capitol on Tuesday.

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and Rep. Luke Messer (R-Ind.) spoke at the event organized by PublicSchoolsOptions.org, a group of parents in over 30 states demanding more choices in schooling.

“When you give parents the choice, you really do give the kid a better chance,” Scott told The Hill. “You really open that child’s minds to amazing opportunities that they would not have seen before.”

“The statistics bear it out, and personal experience says it real,” he added.

Supporters of school choice want to allow federal dollars to follow students through vouchers. But Democrats object to such proposals, saying that federal dollars shouldn’t go toward private schools and that such plans would gut the public education system.

The rally comes after lawmakers in both the House and the Senate passed legislation overhauling the No Child Left Behind education law. But the two versions are different on the issue of school choice with the House bill allowing low-income parents to take federal money to the schools of their choice. The Senate rejected such measures.

Lawmakers must now find a compromise between the two versions, but the White House has panned the House bill while offering reserved support for the Senate measure.

Scott said choice was crucial for poor students who often changed homes and were unable to settle at one school.

“The ability to fund the right school for that kid who’s moving around a lot is difficult,” Scott told The Hill, describing his own childhood growing up in a poor neighborhood and attending four elementary schools.

At the rally, Messer called school choice “the civil rights issue of our time.”

“No child in America should have a waitlist to their future,” Messer said, citing the one million children waiting to attend different schools. “That’s one million lives that are being held back because we’re falling short as a nation.

“The truth is, in America, you already have school choice if you can afford it,” Messer told supporters. “You’ll send your kid to the school of your choice, often a private school, or you can just move. The real question as a country is what are we going to do for everybody else.”

Both lawmakers have sponsored education bills this year. Messer introduced the Scholarships for Kids Act in February 2014 to reallocate Kindergarten through 12th-grade funding to help low income students and co-sponsored the Student Digital Privacy and Parental Rights Act of 2015 with Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) last April to restrict the use of student data.

Scott authored the Creating Hope and Opportunity for Individuals and Communities through Education (CHOICE) Act in January to help students who are disabled or from military or low-income families.

Public Schools Options board director Tillie Elvrum at the rally said choice benefitted different kinds of students, helping some get access to advanced coursework and others to leave behind bullies or difficult schools.

“We trust parents to make education decisions for their children,” she added. She said charter schools, online education, magnet schools, tuition scholarships and open enrollment plans all would better help parents.

Other speakers at the event included Kevin Chavous, executive counsel for the American Federation for Children, and Kara Kerwin, president of the Center for Education Reform.

Group sues 13 school districts for not using test scores in teacher evaluations

by Howard Blume
Los Angeles Times
July 16, 2015

An education advocacy group sued 13 California school districts Thursday, claiming that they have ignored a state law requiring teachers’ performance evaluations to include student standardized test scores.

The lawsuit targets the largest school systems in the state that have barred such use of test results through collective-bargaining agreements with teachers unions. These contract provisions are illegal under state law, according to the complaint, which was filed in Contra Costa County.

The litigation represents the latest effort by Students Matter, a Los Angeles-based group that has turned to California courts to make changes in education law that were otherwise blocked at the state and local levels. The organization was founded by tech entrepreneur David F. Welch to build on other attempts to limit teacher job protections and hold them more accountable for student achievement.

Many states and school systems are using scores in instructors’ performance reviews in part because the Obama administration has offered them incentives, including grants and exemptions from some federal rules and penalties. The practice is among those favored by such influential organizations as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and typically opposed by teacher unions.

Students Matter scored a victory last year when a Superior Court judge in Los Angeles ruled that several teacher job protections were unconstitutional. That case, Vergara vs. California, was watched nationally and spawned similar litigation in New York. The California ruling is on hold pending appeals.

If that decision is upheld, teachers would lose the right to earn tenure, and layoffs would no longer be based on seniority. The process for firing instructors also would be streamlined. The Legislature could pass laws restoring some of these job protections in another form, but they would have to survive court scrutiny.

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