Posts Tagged School choice

The First School District to Put Itself Out of Business

Published by — Nowhere in America has a school system leaped forward so fast.  Apparently, it takes a hurricane to inspire that much responsiveness to kids.

In 2003, Louisiana’s state department of education created the Recovery School District (RSD).  New Orleans’s schools were among the worst in the country, so the state asked the RSD to start with 5 that were the worst of the worst.  While the RSD officials knew the state would likely add more schools, they never dreamed that in 2005, Hurricane Katrina would suddenly jack the total number up to 102.

The jury is in.  The RSD did a whole lot better by the kids than the old Orleans Parish School District.  The graduation rate is up by 23 percentage points since 2005.  In 2007 only 23 percent of the kids K-12 were on grade level in math and reading, but now 57 percent are.  Nowhere in America has a school system leaped forward so fast.  Apparently, it takes a hurricane to inspire that much responsiveness to kids.

The critical thing to know is that the RSD never wanted to be a traditional school district.  They weren’t sure what their district structure would or should look like.  But they knew the traditional Central Office model hadn’t worked in spectacular ways, so they seized the opportunity to avoid reproducing it.  Good choice.

I’ve always marveled that Central Offices have managed to hang on as the industry standard.  Except in tiny districts, Central Offices make life-altering decisions about kids’ education at a distance from the schools themselves.  They negotiate labor contracts and set policies that principals have to make work, somehow.  Central Offices often require certain professional-development training without consulting building-level staff.  Such decisions, labor contracts and districtwide policies effectively micro-manage the work of people who actually know the unique set of students attending their building.  Repeatedly, reformers tried to collapse the disconnect by implementing “site-based management,” whereby the school controls budgets, curriculum, hiring and so forth.  But such efforts rarely withstand Central Office’s overwhelming urges to reclaim and subjugate schools.

Furthermore, Central Office is a natural petri dish for culturing adult needs that infect the educational health of the kids.  Look no further than the 2003 Orleans Parish District which couldn’t account for $71 million in federal dollars.  Its School Board President was headed to jail for taking bribes — on top of managing terrible schools.  So the RSD accidently became the nation’s first radical experiment in Central Office redesign.

When Katrina hit, neither the Orleans nor the Recover districts had much capacity to speak of.  In the wake of the storm, they had to get schools up and running fast.  Orleans, with a Board that still fights publicly, held onto a handful of higher-performing schools in less-devastated areas.  The RSD had the rest and so turned to charter operators, both big charter management organizations and small independent groups who submitted proposals.  The state and feds both kicked in dollars to rehab some of the old school buildings.  And fortunately, some of the charter-world’s best young talent, who’d already started successful schools elsewhere, were excited by the prospect of creating new schools in the city then riveting the nation’s attention.

The RSD was still managing 34 traditional schools even as it handed out charters.  But what a pain.  Acting as Central Office by default, they still had to hire staff, develop policy and manage endless individual budgets.  Try as they might, their schools were of poorer quality than the charters, on average.

Charters are effectively contracts, usually for 5 years.  If their officials mismanage funds or produce failing students, the charter is revoked.  Closing any school is upsetting and unpleasant, but with charters everyone knows the rules of accountability up front.  So increasingly, the RSD transferred their own authority to independent operators who manage themselves, and have full responsibility to use educational strategies that actually succeed.  Or go out of business, as some have.

Eventually the RSD announced they would phase out their own Central Office duties entirely.  As of this coming fall, the RSD will have no district-run schools.  They will be a lean infrastructure that oversees a portfolio of charter schools.  Their responsibilities will include collecting data and holding all schools to accountability standards.  They built a single-application system so parents can apply to 8 schools at once, ranking their preferences, instead of dropping off applications all over town.  That system allows the RSD to monitor equity and access for all kids, especially those with special needs.  Likely they’ll help the schools where economies of scale apply, with health insurance and technology purchases, for example.  The first pure-charter experiment will surely stumble and make mistakes — and already has — but the new problems will never be as inhumane as letting kids languish in terrible schools indefinitely.  And the lessons learned could be invaluable for other cities struggling with their school systems.

In fact, the officials governing the schools in Washington D.C., Newark, Kansas City and Detroit are closely watching this experiment.  Would converting to an all-charter portfolio pull more of their students out of the academic mud?  Fortunately New Orleans has experimented so bravely that a cure for Central Office ineffectiveness might be on the horizon.  Stay tuned on this one.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyzes data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Determined Parents Start A School For Atypical Kids

Published by — The schools available to these parents’ kids were maddeningly non-responsive.

Dr. Amy Pratt looks me dead in the eye when she says, “The Greene Charter School would not exist if it weren’t for me and the parents.”  Christa Andrews, another co-founding-Board member of Greene, looks a little exhausted from it all, but nods approvingly.  Parent-created charter schools are a rare breed, and for good reason.

The school opened in 2010 in semi-rural West Greenwich, Rhode Island.  But its conception took place easily 10, 12 years earlier.  The Pratts, two veterinarians, run an animal hospital and clinic.  Pet-owning clients often gathered at the table in the break room to chit-chat, which often included sharing their frustrations with their children’s schools.  If only, they repeatedly mused together, if only they could start one of their own.

The universal complaint?  The schools were maddeningly non-responsive.  They didn’t seem to care.  Often they flat-out ignored parents’ concerns.  “No” came way too easily.  For example, Pratt’s son is deaf in one ear.  While the condition has its complications, enhanced sound systems and staff accommodations are neither expensive nor unreasonable.  But somehow the solutions were always partial.  The final straw was a middle school official forwarding Pratt a note from the administrators that said, “Tell the mother that that’s what she gets.”  What?  And if it’s not enough or doesn’t work?  “That’s what she gets?”

Other unhappy parents had special needs issues, but many didn’t.  Some kids struggled academically or socially.  Andrews’ break-point was when her oldest son hit the wall of his middle schools’ competitive, cliquey social scene.  With four kids, she couldn’t be battling every day just to get them to school.  She searched for alternatives.  There were none.

Interestingly, the private schools provided these women little relief.  Pratt snatched her young son from one of the priciest schools in RI when she found that the administration never told the teachers about her son’s deaf ear.

And Andrews says, “I went to private schools when I was young.  I didn’t want my kids in that (rarified) atmosphere.  But I didn’t want them bored or isolated either.”

It was thus the charter school movement itself was born.

In 1992, the first charter school opened in St. Paul, Minnesota, after a 1991 law made it possible to open schools relative free of the oppressive regulations that still make it hard for schools to be responsive to the kids in front of them.  Now, about 4.6 percent of America’s public-school kids attend charters.  Charters aren’t perfect, but they’re more accountable to parents because if they’re not responsive, they wither and die.

Not unreasonably, most charter laws mandate interested parents to partner with institutions or educators.  But in practical fact, Greene is very unusual because few charters actually result from parent groups.  Kids mature, move on; parents often do, too.  Starting a school from scratch is a monstrous task.  Recently, “parent-trigger” laws help parents transform their regular public school into a charter, but these schools already have buildings, equipment, staff and infrastructure.  And often parents bring in a Charter Management Organizations (CMO), like KIPP and Achievement First, because as educational franchisers, they’re equipped with a business plan that quickly gets a school up and running.  Parents get an alternative, but have no say in the planning.

It was love at first sight.

By the fall of 2007, Greene had the makings of a rag-tag Board who’d been educating themselves about educational alternatives.  The RI League of Charters and the state Department of Education were as supportive as they could be.  The state had a temporary moratorium on opening new charters and zero money to help start-ups.  Still, one fateful afternoon, hopeful parents and official allies gathered to hear folks give a pitch about Expeditionary Learning (EL).  EL is an educational approach, not a CMO.  They work with school communities to help them build educational responses to their needs.

When the pitch was done, no one moved or spoke.  At last they looked at each other and for the first time said confidently, “We can do this.”

I’ll discuss Expeditionary Learning and this remarkable school in coming weeks, but for today the message is:  Parents shouldn’t have to work so hard to find school staff who “own” their kids.

Yes, some parents are unreasonably demanding.  Many blame the school for their kids’ lack of discipline.  Public schools have no way to hold parents accountable for supporting their kids’ education.  Private schools just chuck such kids and parents out, further burdening the public system.  Parents can be hard.

But they would be less hard if they had plenty of public choices.

By the time Greene finally opened in 2010, Pratt’s son was finishing up at a private high school, which had been an onerous daily schlep for the Pratts.  “Throughout it all, I retained a 10 percent illusion that this school would be for him.”  And it is, sort of.  It’s a living monument to him and to parents’ powerful needs to spare such kids from battling to be heard and addressed.  Parents and kids deserve better.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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Get Creative with Private School Vouchers

Published by —   Invite more private and parochial schools into the public-school fold by giving them charter-like status and accountability.

Surely the worst part of the recent Chicago Teachers strike is the ravaged landscape such battles leave behind.

Both sides in Chicago were fighting for stupid, last-century ideas like protecting seniority (union) and merit pay (management).  Headlines brayed; unions fought back: politicians ranted.  Most importantly, everyone modeled really ugly behavior for the kids.A distinct image of what it looks like when we’ve got it wrong.

It might look better if we all took a deep breath and opened our hearts to the potential virtues of private-school vouchers.

Forget the current debate.  Here’s the driving question:  “How can we give more students and families what they believe will work for them?”

Consider that private and parochial schools offer a menu of proven options that parents have been gladly willing to pay for.

Vouchers offer public money to help low-income parents pay private-school tuition.  And while I have three huge caveats — which I’ll get to — vouchers succeed at helping parents send their kids to schools of their choice.

Imagine how quickly some of the existing public money could bring life-blood back to a large number of desirable private and parochial schools now starving to death in this hideous economy.  Educational diversity is dying.  Steadier funding would strengthen these badly-needed community assets.

A terrific example of a system that got it right is the Edmonton School District, in Alberta, Canada.  Among the most highly-acclaimed in the world, this district has a dazzlingly-diverse menu of school options — private, parochial, charter and district schools.  Some schools are unionized, while others are full-on Catholic — if you don’t like Catholicism, don’t go.  But it’s your choice, not the government’s.

Yes, I know, Canada is not us.  They’re socialists (as is, by the way, the whole notion of public education), so Canada doesn’t count.  But let’s consider the opinion of 30 Delaware educators who visited Edmonton together.  They were so impressed, they used it as the model for the state’s educational strategic plan, “Vision 2015 Delaware.”  Delaware was one of only two grand-prize winners of the first round of Race to the Top.  (Tennessee was the other.)

The Delaware “Visionaries” write, “Students can choose from school programs that are bilingual, religious, cultural, subject-specific, pedagogical or single-gender.

Let many flowers bloom.

In 1995, Edmonton was faced with a new regional law permitting both charter schools and what we would call private-school vouchers.  Edmonton could have done nothing and watched its students leave.  Instead, the district created conditions to encourage the coexistence of all sorts of schools.  To entice the privates and charters into the fold, the district ceded control of curriculum, budget, hiring and school management.  But in exchange, Edmonton provides all schools with equitable public funding, including extras for special education and such.  They do the work of helping parents navigate the system, enrollment, transportation and what they call “continuity across schools,” or data-driven accountability.

So in the end, the tuition payments to the participating private schools weren’t exactly vouchers, but the local per-pupil expenditure paid to a private school.

So, Caveat #1:  Equity of funding.

Milwaukee has the oldest American voucher program dating back to the early 1990s, now serving about 20,000 students.  Their vouchers are only worth $6,500.  Nationally, the average per-pupil expenditure is $10,500, but in Wisconsin it’s over $11,000.  Milwaukee families living at or below 300 percent of poverty are eligible for the vouchers.  Where do really poor families get the extra money?

Fancy private schools aggressively raise money for scholarship programs specifically to diversify their student bodies.  Instead, these schools might prefer to make some of their seats available for a public lottery for income-eligible families.  The school would just have to make due with the local per-pupil expenditure, no matter what the tuition.

So, like charters schools, participating private schools should get the full per-pupil expenditure (ppe).

Caveat #2:  Equity of access.

Also like charter schools, students opting for available private school seats should be chosen by lottery.  No creaming off “easy” students.

Actually, Edmonton has some specialized schools that require entrance exams or auditions.  But given the district’s extremely high parent satisfaction, they’re clearly managing to provide equity of access.

Finally, Caveat #3:  Equity of accountability.

An equitable system would insist that all participating schools share their data publically.   Edmonton has few requirements of their schools, but those include collecting and reporting demographics, finances, test scores and the like.

American voucher systems have always been terribly unfair.  The state accountability systems scrutinize public schools, deem some failures, but give vouchers to private schools not held accountable by or to anyone.

These days many private schools could probably learn to live with accepting kids by lottery in exchange for steady funding.  The real deal-breaker might be cooperating with the data-and-reporting requirements.  Private schools take their own achievement tests that are specifically non-comparable with those in public schools.

We’ve long heard how much better the private schools are than the publics.  I challenge them to prove it.  Show me the data.  Honestly, I hope the privates are as good as they say and that they have lots more seats for low-income kids like Deval Patrick, Governor of Massachusetts, and President Barack Obama, both of whom were plucked from rough circumstances and given good educations.  That’s the point.  Make more such opportunities possible.

But do it in an equitable way.  Edmonton is a fabulous model of adults cooperating on behalf of the kids.

Chicago is not.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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