A Bay State Referendum on Charter Schools

September 29, 2016 by

Boston’s charter-school students are learning twice as fast as their peers. Why vote against more charters?

Cambridge, Mass.

A half-dozen times in recent years I have participated in “book club night” at a local charter school—a not-for-credit event where seventh- and eighth-graders meet with adult volunteers to discuss a book we have all read in advance.

These nights are pretty much a charter proponent’s fantasy. The kids are wide-eyed and respectful. They not only have read the material, they are brimming with questions. Every one of them is black or Hispanic and lower-income—what is commonly referred to as “disadvantaged.” Except, they don’t appear disadvantaged.

These students have big plans for the future—including college. And why not? They are learning twice as fast as their peers in traditional schools, on average. According to a 2013 study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, Boston charter students “gain an additional 12 months in reading and 13 months in math per school year.” Remarkably, African-Americans in the city’s charters are progressing faster than white students at traditional public schools.

Such results have made Massachusetts ground zero for the national charter debate. Due to state laws limiting charter-school capacity, 32,000 kids—most of them poor minorities—languish on waiting lists. This year the state legislature tried to craft a compromise to ease the restrictions but failed. Now it’s up to voters: A referendum on the November ballot would authorize the state to open as many as 12 new charters each year, adding to the roughly 70 in operation now.

In one sense, the ballot measure, known as Question 2, has already proved a boon: Money is pouring in. Pro-charter groups and individuals, including former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have contributed more than $12 million to pass it, according to financial reports filed with the state. Local unions and the American Federation of Teachers have raised about $6.8 million to defeat it. By comparison, a ballot item to legalize pot has smoked out only $3 million.

Charters are public schools run by independent operators, unconstrained by union rules but subject to the same basic educational standards. Results vary, but studies, like one in 2011 by Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research, suggest that poor and minority students do particularly well in charters.Posting admission by lottery results at a charter school in Boston.

Massachusetts has been a front-runner in education since the 1830s, when Horace Mann set out to create a system of public schools. In a state that takes great pride in education, Question 2 has inflamed passions. Local Republicans, who want no part of this year’s presidential politics, are avidly in favor, with Republican Gov. Charlie Baker leading the charge. Democrats are painfully divided, as one might expect for an issue that, arguably, separates the interests of organized teachers from their students.

The Democratic state committee opposes Question 2. Seth Moulton,the freshman congressman in Massachusetts’ sixth district, is undecided. Rep. Joe Kennedy, who represents the fourth district, is against. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh supports enabling more charters but opposes Question 2, citing its budgetary impact and favoring a gradual approach.

Opponents point out that the state’s public schools, on average, consistently rank among the country’s best. True, but the “average” masks some severe underperformance, at urban schools in particular. The argument that charters cherry-pick the best students is a canard. Admission is by lottery, and charter students in urban areas retain their edge when compared against those (presumably equally as motivated) who applied but didn’t get in.

A more substantive concern is that when a student abandons a traditional public school, a pro rata share of funding is diverted from the district school to the charter. Massachusetts has a generous program to reimburse local districts but, over time, aid money goes down. “Since the majority will continue to be educated in mainstream schools we have to be sensitive to that,” says Paul Reville, the top education adviser to Deval Patrick, the former Democratic governor. But Mr. Reville, now at Harvard, adds that school districts also have a responsibility to consolidate if their populations shrink. He says, “We ought to be as vigilant about closing [failing] mainstream schools as we are about charters.”

Smaller districts can’t always consolidate: If you have only one math class and you lose 10% of your funding, you still need a math teacher. Much of the problem is one of will. In Boston, the student population has been flat or shrinking for years. City government has offset the diversion of money to charters by siphoning a greater share of general funds to education. This is less sensible than it might sound.

Boston public schools have 93,000 seats yet only about 54,000 students, according to a 2015 audit by McKinsey & Co. Along with that comes plummeting student-teacher ratios and bloated operational staffs. The real squeeze on public schools, according to a recent report by the nonpartisan Boston Municipal Research Bureau, arises from the “struggle” to cut excess capacity.

Whatever happens with Question 2, most kids in Massachusetts will remain in traditional public schools. That is why the referendum gives priority to new charters in districts that are truly failing their students. Some Question 2 opponents argue suburban districts could lose control of their schools, but this is unlikely. Only 4% of the state’s public students attend charters, and high-performing suburbs would mostly be unaffected.

Paul Grogan, who runs the Boston Foundation, a philanthropy that contributes to charters and (in much greater amounts) to regular public schools, says charters fulfill a vital role as incubators of reform. Thanks to competitive pressures, public schools—famously resistant to change—at long last are lengthening the school day and giving principals more autonomy and budget discretion. Local districts that fail to respond, he suggests, deserve their fate: “The fundamental issue is should the money be chained to institutions or should it follow the children?”

Mr. Lowenstein’s most recent book is “America’s Bank: The Epic Struggle to Create the Federal Reserve” (Penguin Press, 2015)

Trump’s School-Choice Fight

September 19, 2016 by

His plan to let money follow the child is a moral and political winner.


Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Colorado Springs, Colorado on Sept. 17.ENLARGE
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Colorado Springs, Colorado on Sept. 17. PHOTO: REUTERS

If Donald Trump knew that promoting school choice would cause such a ruckus on the left, maybe he’d have weighed in sooner. The Republican nominee has found a winning issue by pitching a plan to “provide school choice to every disadvantaged student in America.” Amen.

During a visit to the Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy, Mr. Trump proposed a $20 billion block grant for states by redirecting federal education money to support charter schools and vouchers. He also endorsed merit pay for teachers and said he’d support local candidates who champion school choice.

Most of the $50 billion or so that the federal government spends on K-12 education is targeted to particular programs like teacher training, and rural and STEM education. About $14 billion in Title I funds are earmarked for disadvantaged students. However, this money doesn’t follow kids to private schools, and states often shortchange charter schools.

Mr. Trump wants to let states use federal funds to boost voucher awards, so parents rather than governments get to choose where the money goes. As he noted in Cleveland, “there is no failed policy more in need of urgent change than our government-run education monopoly.” Judging by the panicky reaction on the left, you’d think he’d proposed eliminating public education.

Hillary Clinton said his block-grant plan would “decimate public schools across America.” Yet $20 billion is merely 3% of what states spend on K-12 education each year and less than the increase in school spending in California since 2012. By the way, charters are public schools—freed of union control.

Mrs. Clinton is showing how far left she has moved on education. President Obama has been hostile to vouchers; recall former Attorney General Eric Holder’s efforts to shut down Louisiana’s voucher program that principally benefits poor black kids. But at least Mr. Obama supported charters, while Mrs. Clinton is now openly hostile to these reform public schools.

Unions and their friends are trying to deflect attention from Mr. Trump’s speech and minority outreach by saying the charter school where he announced his plan received a failing grade on Ohio’s school-progress report card last year. But the charter flunked due to a switch in state tests last year that caused student scores to slump nearly everywhere in the state.

In 2014 about 71% of third graders at Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy were proficient in reading. On the new test 55% rated as proficient. Yet the share of students at Cleveland Arts who scored proficient was still more than twice as high as at Harvey Rice Elementary (which has a similar demographic makeup) down the block. That school got an A on student growth.

It’s ironic that progressives are howling about the charter’s performance on standardized tests, which they usually insist are a poor indicator of school and teacher quality. Why is it that the only schools that unions believe should be held accountable for student performance are those run by their competition? That’s a question Mr. Trump should ask from here to November.

The NAACP vs. Minority Children

August 29, 2016 by

The outfit takes orders from its union backers to oppose charter schools.

Aug. 26, 2016 6:04 p.m. ET
Interest groups tend to care more about money and influence than the people they represent, but some sellouts deserve special attention. Here’s one: The outfit that helped end segregation in public education now works to trap poor and minority kids in dysfunctional schools.

Cornell William Brooks, President and CEO of the NAACP, at the annual convention on July 18 in Cincinnati, Ohio. ENLARGE
Cornell William Brooks, President and CEO of the NAACP, at the annual convention on July 18 in Cincinnati, Ohio. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Last month the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People introduced a resolution at its national convention in Cincinnati calling for a moratorium on charter schools, which are public but free from union rules and control. The measure also says the NAACP “will continue to advocate against any state or Federal legislation” that “commits or diverts public funding” to private or charter schools. The resolution must be formally adopted at a board meeting later this year.

Some 28% of charter-school students are black, which is almost double the figure for traditional public schools. A report last year from Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that across 41 urban areas black students in charters gained on average 36 extra days in math learning a year and 26 in reading while Hispanic students gained 22 in math and six in reading. Black students in poverty notched 59 more days in math. This is the definition of “advancement.”
The NAACP didn’t bother to ask black parents what they think: A 2013 poll of black voters in four southern states by the Black Alliance for Educational Options found that at least 85% agreed that “government should provide parents with as many choices as possible.” No less than half in every state supported charter schools. Another sign of support is the hundreds of thousands of black students nationwide who sign up for lotteries for a seat at a charter.

The NAACP complains about charter schools’ “disproportionately high use of punitive and exclusionary discipline,” and so do its friends at Black Lives Matter. This is bogus: An American Enterprise Institute report this month matched each charter school’s suspension rate with data for the five nearest traditional schools. More than 50% of charter schools suspended students at rates similar to neighbors, and almost 30% had lower rates than alternatives. The deeper complaint is that charters enforce order, which progressive educators long ago replaced with student-teacher “dialogues.”
The group’s real motive is following orders from its teacher-union patrons. The NAACP in 2011 filed a lawsuit with the United Federation of Teachers to prevent the expansion of some New York City charter schools, which are now driving the Empire State’s educational progress. The National Education Association dropped $100,000 in 2014 for a partnership with the NAACP. The unions expect the NAACP’s help in fending off charter competition.

No one argues that charter schools will fix all that ails American education, but for many families they are an evacuation route from failure factories. Apparently the NAACP doesn’t think black parents deserve that option. The irony is that W.E.B. DuBois founded the place to fight precisely that kind of paternalism and forced inequality.

Poor Children Need a New Brown v. Board of Education

August 29, 2016 by

Students deserve federal protection from the twisted logic of tenure rules that undermine learning.

Aug. 28, 2016 5:50 p.m. ET
The California Supreme Court announced Aug. 22 that it would not hear Vergara v. California, a landmark case fighting for the educational rights of public-school students. The court’s unwillingness even to consider an issue that Justice Goodwin Liu called “one of the most consequential to the future of California” demonstrates why the federal courts must intervene and recognize that the U.S. Constitution guarantees a fundamental right to education.

Julia Macias, 13, a plaintiff in Vergara v. California, in Los Angeles, June 10. ENLARGE
Julia Macias, 13, a plaintiff in Vergara v. California, in Los Angeles, June 10. PHOTO: NANCY PASTOR/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
In Vergara, nine students challenged teacher-tenure and dismissal laws that make it nearly impossible for school districts to remove grossly ineffective teachers from the classroom. We were part of the team, along with our partner former U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson, who represented the student plaintiffs. After an eight-week bench trial in 2014, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu struck down the statutes under the state constitution because their twisted logic is “unfathomable” and they inflict harm so severe that it “shocks the conscience.”

Judge Treu’s decision attracted national attention. Then-Education Secretary Arne Duncan declared that the decision “presents an opportunity for a progressive state with a tradition of innovation to build a new framework for the teaching profession that protects students’ rights to equal educational opportunities while providing teachers the support, respect and rewarding careers they deserve.”

The state of California and California’s two largest teachers unions appealed. In its decision, the California Court of Appeal acknowledged that the laws are a “problem,” agreed that they likely lead to “grossly ineffective teachers being in the educational system,” and described the situation as “deplorable.” The court sided with the unions anyway.

The case seemed destined for the California Supreme Court, but on Aug. 22 the court declined to hear the case by a vote of 4-3. Pursuant to its ordinary procedures, the court did not explain why. Yet two justices took the extraordinary step of issuing dissenting opinions decrying the majority’s failure to act. Justice Liu wrote that “[t]he nine schoolchildren who brought this action, along with the millions of children whose educational opportunities are affected every day by the challenged statutes, deserve to have their claims heard by this state’s highest court.” Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar described the laws as “staggering failures that threaten to turn the right to education for California schoolchildren into an empty promise.”
California’s refusal to protect its young citizens has made federal protection essential. Public education meets the U.S. Supreme Court’s fundamental-right test, as articulated in Washington v. Glucksberg (1997), because it is “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition” and “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.” Laws that impair that right should be subject to strict scrutiny under the Constitution’s due-process and equal-protection clauses.

Public education has been a fundamental pillar of U.S. society since the nation’s founding, when the Continental Congress set aside public lands “to support a system of schools in a state.” As the Supreme Court put it in 1954’s historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling: “it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he [or she] is denied the opportunity of an education.”

Two decades after Brown, the Supreme Court in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez (1973) held that education is not a fundamental right in the context of school funding. But it expressly left open the possibility that a right to education might be recognized in another situation. In Papasan v. Allain (1986), the court made clear that whether education is a fundamental right is “not yet definitively settled.”

Such a right would not be an open invitation for federal courts to manage schools or for litigants to bring every education policy question to federal court. Rather, it would protect children across the country against state laws and policies that actively and knowingly deprive them of essential educational opportunities and create egregious inequality, like the California statutes in Vergara.

The day after the denial of review in Vergara, we filed a case in Connecticut federal court, Martinez v. Malloy. We argue for a federal constitutional right to challenge laws that force inner-city children to attend schools that the state knows are failing to provide a minimally acceptable education. These laws are especially cruel because Connecticut has some terrific public schools, including in urban centers.

Magnet schools and public charter schools achieve outstanding results for students. Yet Connecticut has defied reason and imposed a moratorium on magnet schools and an effective cap on charter schools. The state also punishes high-quality public schools that accept transfer students from failing schools. Inner-city kids have to win a lottery to gain access to decent schools.

In Brown, the Supreme Court described education as the “very foundation of good citizenship,” and proclaimed that the “opportunity of an education . . . is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” The federal courts should transform these powerful words into a reality and enforce the fundamental right of children to education in this country.

Messrs. Boutrous and Lipshutz, partners at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, are counsel for the plaintiffs in Vergara v. California and Martinez v. Malloy, and for Students Matter, the nonprofit sponsor of both lawsuits.

Hillary Clinton’s School Choice

August 1, 2016 by

WSJ Review & Outlook

She used to support charters. Now she’s for the union agenda.

No one would call the 2016 election a battle of ideas, but it will have policy consequences. So it’s worth noting the sharp left turn by Hillary Clinton and Democrats against education reform and the charter schools she and her husband championed in the 1990s.

Mrs. Clinton recently promised a National Education Association (NEA) assembly higher pay, student-loan write-offs, less testing and universal pre-K. She had only this to say about charter schools, which are free from union rules: “When schools get it right, whether they are traditional public schools or public charter schools, let’s figure out what’s working” and “share it with schools across America.”

The crowd booed, so Mrs. Clinton pivoted to deriding “for-profit charter schools,” a fraction of the market whose grave sin is contracting with a management company. Cheering resumed. When she later addressed the other big teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), she began with an attack on for-profit charters.

We remember when Mrs. Clinton wasn’t so easily intimidated by unions. Bill Clinton’s grant program took the movement from a few schools to thousands. In Mrs. Clinton’s 1996 memoir, “It Takes a Village,” she wrote that she favored “promoting choice among public schools, much as the President’s Charter Schools Initiative encourages.” And here’s Mrs. Clinton in 1998: “The President believes, as I do, that charter schools are a way of bringing teachers and parents and communities together.”

But now Mrs. Clinton needs the support of the Democratic get-out-the-vote operation known as teacher unions, which loathe charter schools that operate without unions. The AFT endorsed Mrs. Clinton 16 months before Election Day, and the NEA followed.

Shortly after, in a strange coincidence, Mrs. Clinton began repeating union misinformation: “Most charter schools, they don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids,” she said on a South Carolina campaign stop in November. But Mrs. Clinton used to know that nearly all charter schools select students by lottery and are by law not allowed to discriminate. The schools tend to crop up in urban areas where traditional options are worst. A recent study from Stanford University showed that charters better serve low-income children, minority students and kids who are learning English.

There’s an irony in Mrs. Clinton’s pitch that schools should simply share best practices. In 2005 the United Federation of Teachers started a charter school in Brooklyn, N.Y., to prove that unions weren’t holding up success. The school rejected the hallmarks of charter schools like New York’s Success Academy: order, discipline and other concepts progressives view as oppressive. Principals, for instance, were renamed “school leaders.” So how’s that experiment working out? Grades K-8 didn’t meet state standards last year and closed.

Mrs. Clinton’s switcheroo follows the pro-union turn of the Democratic Party platform. This year’s original draft was at least mildly pro-reform, but the final version opposes using test scores to evaluate teachers, encourages parents to opt out of testing for their kids, and endorses multiple restrictions on charters that would make them much less effective.

The education planks caused Peter Cunningham, an assistant secretary in President Obama’s Education Department, to lament that the platform “affirms an education system that denies its shortcomings and is unwilling to address them.” He called it “a step backwards” that will hurt “low-income black and Hispanic children” in particular.

In this election year of bad policy choices, the Democratic retreat from school choice and accountability is the most dispiriting.

Liberals and Equal Protection

June 10, 2016 by

Will California judges hear a case challenging teacher tenure?

California’s Supreme Court has the opportunity to make a civil-rights breakthrough by agreeing to hear a landmark case that challenges teacher tenure laws on equal protection grounds. Let’s see if the court’s liberals have the courage of their convictions.

Four years ago, nine public school students sued to overturn California’s lifetime teacher job protections and “last-in-first-out” policies, which have concentrated ineffective teachers in poor and minority communities. Reams of evidence in Vergara v. State of California show how disadvantaged students are the most harmed by these laws.

Teachers in California receive tenure after two years, making them nearly impossible to fire. Fewer than 0.002% of teachers statewide are dismissed for unprofessional conduct or poor performance. Thousands are ranked grossly ineffective, yet only about 20 have been terminated over the last decade. In Los Angeles Unified School District, it takes upward of 10 years and between $250,000 to $450,000 to fire a teacher. Administrators typically reassign lousy teachers to less desirable schools in poor areas.

Due to seniority rights, inexperienced teachers are disproportionately assigned to poorer schools. State law also mandates that the newest hires be the first dismissed during budget layoffs regardless of performance. During a recent budget crunch, Oakland laid off 90% of teachers, including many Teach for America alums, in some low-income schools.

A single year with a grossly ineffective teacher can cost a classroom of students $1.4 million in lifetime earnings. Meanwhile, seniority-based layoffs reduce lifetime student earnings by an estimated $2.1 million per teacher laid off. In 2014 Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu struck down tenure laws, noting that the evidence of their destructive impact “shocks the conscience.”

Yet last month the state’s second appellate court ruled that students harmed by the laws didn’t have enough in common to make an equal-protection claim under California’s constitution. In other words, the disadvantaged students weren’t all black or Hispanic. Yet California’s Supreme Court has held that the mere abridgement of a fundamental state right like education is enough to contest an equal-protection violation.

The appellate court also ruled that the plaintiffs failed to show that the “statutes inevitably cause a certain group of students” to receive an inferior education. Instead, school administrators, albeit hamstrung by the laws, are supposedly to blame. Under this ruling, it would be nearly impossible to make equal-protection claims under the California constitution. A school-funding formula that results in lower-income schools receiving less money couldn’t be challenged. Nor could school-district boundaries that produce segregated schools.

Vergara relies on a statistical disparate-impact analysis that the left uses to bludgeon businesses. We think disparate impact is unconstitutional, but if it’s the law then progressives can’t pick and choose when it applies. The nine students have asked California’s Supreme Court to hear the case, and the future of millions will depend on their decision.

A Last-Gasp Chance for Detroit’s Abysmal Schools

February 20, 2016 by

Michigan taxpayers are on the verge of sending more than $700 million to Detroit Public Schools in the latest effort to reform the nation’s worst-performing urban school district.

Detroiters are all about the bailout. But you can’t blame other state residents—and the lawmakers who represent them—for not readily jumping on board with the plan.

This is the finale in what has been a 16-year state intervention in the Detroit school district. Without this round of emergency funding, the district is set to go completely broke by April.

Republican Gov. Rick Snyder has put together a sweeping proposal to restructure the district. But the prospects for those reforms are starting to look shaky, and even the one positive development in Detroit education in recent years—increased school choice—is in danger of retrenchment.

It would hardly be the first time that efforts to revitalize Detroit Public Schools, or DPS, have turned into trouble. The last big initiative from Gov. Snyder was in 2011, when the state broke out the 15 worst schools in Detroit and placed them in a reform district. That experiment didn’t work, and those schools will now likely revert to DPS.

If Gov. Snyder gets the Michigan Legislature to support his current plan for the state’s largest school district, the debt relief would translate to $1,000 more per student. The district has lost roughly 100,000 students in the past decade, and more than half of the city’s kids are in charter, private and suburban schools, but 46,000 children still rely on DPS.

How bad are these schools?

In 2009, DPS broke records for how badly its students performed on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is the best measure of student performance among states. In 2015, for the fourth straight year, Detroit students scored the lowest among 21 big-city districts in math and reading. Nationally, the average fourth-grade reading proficiency level is 35%; in Detroit, it’s 6%.

In some schools, the number of students who were proficient in reading and math was near zero. The sad reality is many students aren’t learning much more at school than if they stayed home watching TV.

The district’s buildings are also falling apart, and a recent string of teacher strikes brought some of these conditions to light. Mold, crumbling ceilings and rodents are a few of the problems. That’s despite DPS’s taking on nearly $2 billion in capital debt in the past two decades for infrastructure improvements.

Still, what seems to be a generous bailout from Gov. Snyder—$72 million a year for a decade to erase the debt—is facing opposition, with the loudest protests from the Detroit Federation of Teachers. The union wants the money, with no reforms attached.

The timing couldn’t be worse for Gov. Snyder or his plan. The governor has taken a huge political hit for his handling of the Flint water crisis. DPS and Flint are linked by Darnell Earley’s decision to become the state’s emergency financial manager of the school district a year ago. Mr. Earley served in that same role for the city of Flint, during which time the lead contamination in tap water began. He is now headed out the door.

While most lawmakers accept that Michigan taxpayers are on the hook for much of DPS’s state-backed operational debt—and perhaps another $2.8 billion in capital and pension obligations—they disagree with the governor about how the district should be run.

Gov. Snyder wanted more state oversight in the form of an appointed school board and an education commission that would have directed the opening and closing of all city schools, including charters. But he is now backing away from those concepts to get more support for the financial rescue.

It now looks like once legislation passes, control will quickly return to an elected school board. While that’s what Detroiters want, the school board has a miserable track record. The board president in 2010 was barely literate and was accused of fondling himself during a private meeting with the female superintendent. DPS settled the case for $650,000. The board also once hired an interim superintendent who declared that one of his top priorities was teaching the district’s 90% black students Ebonics.

Given the disaster that is Detroit Public Schools, the city’s best option would seem to be expanding school choice. Charter schools have offered a lifeline to families, and now more than half of Detroit students attend those alternative public schools. That places Detroit behind only New Orleans for the percentage of students in charters.

But many in the charter community worry that this next iteration of Detroit education reform will squeeze out their schools in an attempt to keep DPS classrooms full and the books balanced. Every lost student costs the district more than $7,000 in per-pupil state aid. With the state on the hook for the debt pay-down, it may have a perverse incentive to curtail choice.

A rational assessment of the district’s chronic failure merits a solution that moves away from keeping the district alive and instead focuses on giving children quality schools, even if those schools are outside the traditional public-school model.

But without the community’s support, and with a governor hamstrung by the mess in Flint, it looks like Michigan taxpayers will be again throwing good money after bad in an attempt to save a school district that has defied salvation for decades.

Ms. Jacques is deputy editorial-page editor of the Detroit News. She writes frequently on education in Detroit.

A Dangerously Good Charter School

February 19, 2016 by

The high-ranked Basis school in Scottsdale, Ariz., wants to expand, but some residents—along with public schools—are raising “safety” concerns.

Feb. 18, 2016 6:53 p.m. ET
Arizona is becoming something of a California suburb as Golden State retirees, young families and workers move next door in search of cheaper housing, well-paying jobs and better schools. In 2014 alone, 22,000 Californians relocated to Arizona—more than the number of newcomers from all other states combined.

The influx of new residents is inciting a backlash against growth in the upscale Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale, where denizens have mobilized to block the expansion of one of the highest-performing schools in the nation. Given that the school is a charter, the “community safety advocates” are being cheered on by local public schools.

In 2015, U.S. News & World Report ranked the Scottsdale school run by the Basis charter-school operator, grades five through 12, as the top charter and second-best public high school in the country. All Basis students take AP classes, and 96% pass their exams, compared with 57% nationwide. More than 90% of students scored proficient in math on state tests while only about half of students districtwide do. The school is particularly well known for its science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and foreign-language programs, which include Mandarin and Latin.

Like most charter schools, Basis Scottsdale doesn’t offer teacher tenure. Teachers are paid bonuses based on the number of students who pass AP exams with high scores. The school randomly selects students by lottery and has drawn many middle-class Asian families to the area with the promise of a free, top-flight education. There are nearly 1,200 students on the wait list.

The Basis Scottsdale school’s current facility, which holds 740 students, is cramped. It has no gym or playground. So in January, Basis purchased a nine-acre plot of vacant land about a mile and a half away for a new two-story complex with modern science labs and a full-size gym. Basis planned to convert its existing campus into an elementary school that could enroll 520 new students.

The proposed expansion has sparked an outcry from residents who claim the new school would increase traffic congestion and imperil “public safety.” At a neighborhood meeting in December, one man who had heard about Basis’ plan announced that he “was prepared to spend six figures to make sure this school doesn’t happen.” Another said of the school that “when the first kid dies, their blood will be on your hands.”

The firestorm is reminiscent of the satirized town-hall meetings on the NBC comedy “Parks and Recreation” (“Where are my kids supposed to play, the rock quarry?”). The school’s foes have hired a lawyer and traffic engineer. Jonathan Gelbart, Basis’ director of charter school development, says that opponents have been regularly filming traffic at the current campus and even flew a drone overhead.

New building developments almost always increase traffic, but Basis worked with city officials on a plan to reduce the school’s impact. And in Arizona, charter schools are exempted from the Development Review Commission process. This hasn’t stopped opponents, who are now trying to derail the project on a technical point. They have asked the Scottsdale City Council to refuse to abandon an easement on the property, which would stymie construction. The council will vote on Tuesday, Feb. 23.

Meanwhile, project opponents are getting an assist from public-school parents and teachers. The Scottsdale Unified School District has said that some public schools may have to close because private and charter schools have reduced their enrollment. In a newsletter this month, the Parent Teacher Organization at nearby Mountainside Middle School warned that the new Basis school would be “dangerous” and could limit residents’ “access to their homes in case of a fire or emergency.”

All politics may be local, but the Scottsdale brouhaha echoes the squabbles over development that commonly occur in affluent California enclaves. Where Californians go, so go their political neuroses.

Ms. Finley is an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal.

Free-Market Accountability Could Rescue Our Schools

February 3, 2016 by


        The  Wall Street Journal

    Updated March 30, 2010 12:01 a.m. ET

Philip K. Howard’s March 25 op-ed, “Why Freer Schools Are Better Schools,” correctly points to “centralized legal dictates” as the shackles that keep teachers and principals from exercising common sense. However, his solution, “to abandon adversarial legal proceedings and protect against abuses with a local oversight board,” betrays his misunderstanding of the fundamental difference between government accountability and free-market accountability. Local oversight boards already exist. They are called school boards, and they have already demonstrated their inability to provide “common sense” in large urban school districts.

A government accountability system is always a mandate-entitlement system. Government can only exercise its management authority by passing “dictates.” Even if the legislature’s motives were to transcend politics, it suffers from Friedrich Hayek’s “lack of knowledge” problem. The legislature in Austin, Texas can’t possibly know what Johnny in Houston and Mary in El Paso need.

This system is also based on entitlements. Since parents have been stripped of all authority, they also have no responsibility. Their children are “entitled” to an education regardless of how badly the parents or children behave. Hoping to solve Mr. Howard’s complaints within this system is like hoping to put the square peg in the round hole.

In contrast, a free-market accountability system encourages common sense and avoids most “dictates” because it is a voluntary-contract system. A mutually voluntary system is the opposite of a mandate system. The “lack of knowledge” problem is minimized because the great majority of parents know their children better than anyone else.

A contract system provides for mutual responsibility, not entitlement. The parents are responsible to deliver a child who is ready to learn. Tuition or scholarship funds must be paid. The school is responsible to teach the values and academics desired by the parents. If either the school or the parents don’t meet their responsibilities under the contract, it terminates, and the family moves on to establish a contract with another school. The free-enterprise system by its very nature solves Mr. Howard’s complaints.

We are squandering the greatest resource that any nation has, our children. Depriving them of their financial inheritance through Social Security and Medicare is nothing compared to depriving them of the ability to be productive citizens by not educating them.

Bob Schoolfield

Texans for Parental Choice in Education
Austin, Texas

Detroit’s Public School Plague

January 23, 2016 by

A teacher walkout highlights the need for radical reform.

Jan. 22, 2016 5:55 p.m. ET
The Wall Street Journal

As if Flint’s water crisis wasn’t bad enough for urban Michigan, on Wednesday 88 of Detroit’s 100 public schools shut down, after 800 some teachers called in sick purportedly to protest their abject working conditions. Many Motown schools are a picture of poverty, but the root of the rot is the lack of accountability for failure.

Unions orchestrated Wednesday’s teacher “sick-out,” the latest of more than a half dozen this school year, to coincide with President Obama’s visit touting the White House auto bailout. Their goal is to draw political steam from Flint, flog supposed Republican racial animus—95% of students are black or Latino—and impel a bailout.

Media accounts of Detroit schools have documented rodent infestation, caving ceilings, black mold and putrid air. Emergency manager Darnell Earley, who previously ran Flint until being redeployed this month to Detroit by Governor Rick Snyder, has become a scapegoat. But the collapse of Detroit’s schools has been decades in the making.

Enrollment has fallen by two-thirds since 2000 due to population flight and charter-school expansion. Public schools have lost about 71,000 students in a decade while charters have gained 23,000. About 53% of Detroit students attend charters compared to 20% in 2006.

Detroit Public Schools have $3.5 billion in liabilities including $1.3 billion for pension and retirement health benefits. Since 2009 the public school system has been under the guardianship of a state emergency manager. Although 100 schools have since closed, deficits persist. This year’s $215 million hole is nearly a third of the district’s general fund revenues.

The district has repeatedly borrowed to balance its budget in lieu of making capital repairs and improvements. Legacy costs have diverted money from instruction, while good teachers have left for charters that offer more freedom and class discipline. Seniority-based layoffs force out promising young teachers while tenure protects the worst. Collective bargaining agreements block reforms like longer school days. The union contract also prohibits strikes, so instead teachers call in sick.

No surprise then that Detroit has ranked at the bottom of 21 large urban public school districts on the National Assessment of Educational Progress since 2009. Last year only 4% of Detroit eighth graders were proficient in math and 7% in reading. A Stanford University Center for Research on Education Outcome study last year found that Detroit charter students on average gained 65 days of learning in math and 50 days in reading per year over their public school counterparts.

Mr. Snyder has proposed spinning off Detroit Public Schools’ debt, which would be paid down over time with state aid. A new debt-free district would be created with state funds. Financial engineering and more aid may forestall bankruptcy, but they won’t improve math scores.

Detroit schools need radical reform, and the expiration of the teachers’ collective-bargaining agreement in June gives state guardians an opening. One model is New Orleans, which converted nearly all of its schools to charters after Hurricane Katrina. Strict accountability should require low-performing charters to close. Detroit’s poverty is real, but it doesn’t excuse continuing educational failure.