School (False) Choice Sunday

Have you ever been unhappy with your “choices”? For example, you go to a Redbox and there are 60 movies in the machine, but not one film seems interesting. Even though there are many “choices”, you are not happy with any of them. Or how about when someone else defines the choice for you. For example, you are choosing a restaurant on a Saturday night and your companion says that they are open to eating anywhere but then they proceed to reject the next ten suggestions. Then they proceed to give you a list of three restaurants they would prefer for that evening— they have defined the choice for you. Or how about if you are a teenager and your parents tell you that you can see any movie you want as long as its Spiderman at 10 a.m. These are all examples of false choice.

The choice argument is very powerful in the current education policy discourse. The core of the argument goes like this, “parents should be able to choose a high quality school.” What I want to focus on first is the “top concerns” for public schools.

Screen Shot 2015-03-15 at 10.00.18 AM

In the Public Interest conducted a poll of voters to gauge what communities find as problematic in their schools. I think a fair translation is that these are the most desired choices for their schools. Here is a little Sunday “Family Feud” fun with the poll data.

The Family Feud app I used for the video only had a spot for six choices, so school choice didn’t make the cut. ITPI stated:

Lack of school choice does not register as a top concern. Voters focus on lack of parental involvement, too much focus on standardized tests, cuts to school funding, and class size as the biggest problems facing K-through-12 education. Lack of school choice ranks dead last on their list of concerns.

What are the other key findings of the polling:

  • Voters have positive views of their public schools and public school teachers. Sixty-three percent of voters rate the quality of education at public schools in their neighborhood excellent or good, while just 29 percent rate them fair or poor. Voters are more likely to say public schools in their neighborhood are getting better (31 percent) than getting worse (16 percent), while a 42 percent plurality are not seeing much change either way. By more than 6:1, voters are more likely to have favorable than unfavorable views of public school teachers (68 percent favorable – 11 percent unfavorable).
  • Voters expressed mixed views on charter schools with a majority opposing expansion of charters. With no description, 44 percent favor charter schools, 18 percent oppose them and 38 percent do not have enough information to form an opinion. After a neutral description, 52 percent favor charter schools, while 38 percent oppose them. At the same time, 62 want to keep the number of charter schools the same or reduce the number of charter schools in their area, while 29 percent want to increase the number of charter schools in their area.

Other polling results:

Total Support %

Transparency & Accountability

Require companies and organizations that manage charter schools to open board meetings to parents and the public, similar to public school board meetings


Require state officials to conduct regular audits of charter schools’ finances to detect fraud, waste or abuse of public funds


Require companies and organizations that manage charter schools to release to parents and the public how they spend taxpayer money, including their annual budgets and contracts


Protect Neighborhood Schools

Ensure that neighborhood public schools do not lose funding when new charter schools open in their area


Before any new charter school is approved, conduct an analysis of the impact the school will have on neighborhood public schools


Protect Taxpayer funds

Require charter schools to return taxpayer money to the school district for any student that leaves the charter school to return to a neighborhood public school during the school year


Stop the creation of new charter schools if state officials have not shown the ability to prevent fraud and mismanagement


Prohibit charter school board members and their immediate families from financially benefiting from their schools.


Prohibit charter schools from spending taxpayer dollars on advertising or marketing.


High quality education for every child

Require all teachers who work in taxpayer funded schools, including neighborhood public schools and charter schools, to meet the same training and qualification requirements


Require charter schools to serve high-need students such as special education students, at the same level as neighborhood public schools.


Voters are clearly in favor of accountability for school choice. What are we to do about all this? What can legislators do to ensure that “choice does not run amok? There are good ideas on how to regulate school choice relative public opinion and research. ITPI released a recent brief with an accountability agenda specifically for charter schools. You can check it out here.

Despite public opinion favor a variety of other “top concerns,” legislatures across the nation are pushing forward on more “school choice.” A prominent and increasingly popular false choice is online/virtual charters. In Texas, and elsewhere, politicians are determined to enroll more students in online/virtual charter schools (Ravitch wrote about Texas’ love affair with K12 here and here) despite the dismal data turned in by the sector over the past decade. For example, how has “virtual” charter education worked out for California? In the report Virtual Public Education in California: A Study of Student Performance, Management Practices and Oversight Mechanisms at California Virtual Academies, a K12 Inc. Managed School System ITPI examined management practices and student academic performance at California Virtual Academies (CAVA), the largest provider of virtual public education in California. They wrote:

Our research shows that students at CAVA are at risk of low quality educational outcomes, and some are falling through the cracks entirely, in a poorly resourced and troubled educational environment. One of CAVA’s functions is to act as revenue producer for its manager and primary vendor K12 California LLC (K12 California), a subsidiary of K12 Inc. K12 Inc. is a publicly traded company. This can put the leaders of the company in a position where they must choose between maximizing profit to fulfill their responsibility to shareholders and fully investing in the education of public school children, including those in California. As a private company, K12 Inc. offers us limited information concerning internal operations; however, our research indicates that some of the problems identified at CAVA result from inadequate resources in the virtual classroom, which suggests that funds are not being directed where they are needed.

What did they find?

The virtual education model advanced by K12 Inc. in California does not adequately serve many of its students. In every year since it began graduating students, except 2013, CAVA has had more dropouts than graduates. Its academic growth was negative for most of its history and it did not keep up with other demographically similar schools after 2005. Its Academic Performance Index scores consistently ranked poorly against other demographically similar schools and the state as a whole. Evidence of low quality educational materials, under- staffing of clerical employees and low teacher salaries all indicates that an additional investment of resources in the classroom is necessary for improvement.

Based on a tip from someone inside the NCAA, Cloaking Inequity broke the new last year that the NCAA deemed the quality of K12 to be so poor that they would no longer accept credits. I discussed this issue in the post NCAA Bans K12 Inc. Online Charters: No Rose Bowl, No Final Four

I recently spoke on school choice in Sacramento at a briefing for Legislators entitled Concerns with the Corporate Model of Online. The event featured Dr. Michelle Renee from Annenberg, teachers from CAVA, and Dr. Cohen from ITPI. Here is the conversation on Youtube.

Because the powerful benefit and profit from school choice, this debate will continue. How about we offer voters what they have asked for instead of setting up false choices?

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For all of Cloaking Inequity’s posts on vouchers go here.

For all of Cloaking Inequity’s posts on charters go here.

A few photos from last weeks SxSWedu Policy Forum talk Reforming Charter Reform with Kevin Welner. Photo credit to the various folks to tweeted these at me.

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