Burke: 44% of DC Students attend charter schools, DC officals are knocking on doors

July 14, 2014


(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Lindsey Burke on the lay of the land in the District of Columbia Public Schools, which inches ever closer to having a majority of charter school students and which is leading the nation by a wide margin in academic gains, led by charter schools. Oh and where district school principals have taken to the streets to sell their schools to parents in search of students.

What do you make of all of this Chewie?


Yeah, me too.



Mediocre is Closer than it Appears, MUST GO FASTER!

March 27, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

In Mediocre May Be Closer than it Appears, Jonathan Butcher cross listed the Arizona Board of Regents Report showing massive, widespread failure of the Arizona High School Class of 2006 to graduate from college by 2012 with the state’s A-F grading system.  He found that 75 percent of graduates of A rated schools did not complete a BA in six years.

Outside of a few islands of excellence, how close is mediocre in AZ? Try 2:40 through 2:45 close:

Note for the record that there have been conversations about raising the standards of the grading system, but right at the moment we have no idea even what test the public schools will be using for accountability purposes next year.  The AIMS statue is long overdue for demolition so that the townsfolk can beat it with their shoes, but we sadly have a few things to sort out before making adjustments to the grading system.

Meanwhile, T-Rex will continue to feed on T-Gen employees, blood sucking lawyers and unfortunate kids who are not getting the education they need to succeed in life.

The school choice tribe has been getting a great deal of grief in Arizona, as if we were the cause of the funding declines here in our pleasant patch of cactus. Despite rumors to the contrary, we did not induce the housing crash to go on a rampage to gleefully cut public school budgets. Charter schools for instance have never received as much total funding per pupil as the district schools and they have had to suffer along with the districts.  Say what you will about Arizona conservatives in the legislature, but it is a simple mathematical fact that last year’s Medicaid expansion will do more to constrain growth in K-12 district spending once the temporary federal bonus money runs out than the ESA program ever will.

It’s also worth noting that public school groups went to the ballot with an initiative that would have prevented cuts. The accounts I have heard of the enterprise had prominent business leaders abandoning the effort in disgust during the formative stage. Various interests, most notably the road construction guys, log-rolled their way into the package and well-meaning but inexperienced people played prominent roles in the campaign. It wasn’t exactly a shock when the voters soundly rejected the measure. A lack of confidence that the money would make it into the classroom seemed decisive.

I can see why people might suspect that school choice sleeper agents infiltrated this effort in order to sabotage it from the inside, but I can assure you that this did not in fact happen.

Meanwhile, second by second by minute by minute Arizona continues to get older, our dependency ratio gets larger, and our prospects for growth dimmer.

A grand bargain might look something like this: a revamp of the state’s tax system to ditch the income tax and replace it with consumption taxes.  This would address the fact that two large groups- Snowbirds and undocumented immigrants-have ways of avoiding income taxation but still consume state services.  You could hope to get this to be pro-growth and thus pro-revenue.  If anyone in Arizona thinks they don’t need a top-notch tax system to compete, look over there, I saw Texas holding hands with your girlfriend.  She was gazing admiringly into his eyes with a blissful expression on her face while gently brushing his cowboy hat.

The second part of the grand bargain would be to tie increased funding to quantifiable improvement.  Florida’s program to provide a $700 bonus to schools and teachers that get a child to pass an Advanced Placement exam for instance seems like a great idea for a state in which only 19% of the Class of 2006 earned a BA degree.  I think many Arizonans would be willing to invest more in public education. I am potentially one of them, and I am potentially willing to pay higher taxes to do it, but many of us are not willing to simply pay more for the same bad results.  Some pilot programs that show improvement associated with increased funding could be the only realistic place to start.  At the moment, many don’t want to put more water into what they regard as a leaking bucket.

Finally there are some fundamental questions that the public school groups need to confront.  Such as: why can charter schools receiving $1600 less per student often crush the results of nearby district schools with more money and similar student demographics?  Two main reasons: charter school kids are all there by choice and have bought in to the culture of the school. Second these schools efficiently remove ineffective instructors from the classroom in a way that most district schools do not.

The hour is later than most realize and we do need to embrace improvement strategies beyond expanding choice.  Everything should be on the table and we need to get serious.



Use the Force MOOC! A 2013 retrospective

December 26, 2013

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The after-Christmas but before New Year period is always dominated by “Year in Review” retrospectives, so why not join in on the fun? Here at the Jayblog we dig new options for students and parents, so let’s take a look back at 2013.

Digital learning continues to surge. No one has yet established the free online degree that some nutball predicted in 2009, but events are moving in that direction. Dhawal Shah of EdSurge leads us off with a review of the progress of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in 2013. Shah includes MOOCilicous charts like:




MOOC 2and…


All of this is quite impressive given the first MOOC rolled out in 2011. Shah provides analysis and 2014 predictions, so go read the article. Events seem to be conspiring to take a very sharp pin to a higher education tuition bubble. One cannot help but wonder how long we will go on debating public funding for online high-school courses when, ahhh, Stanford is giving them away for free and you can, well, get college credit for them.  The logical side of Kevin Carey’s brain (the one that writes about higher education) turned in a useful refutation of the hand-wringing over MOOC completion rates.

Remember where you heard it first- the day is coming when more people will be watching university lectures online than Baywatch reruns.

Please note: I did not say it would be any time soon…

On the K-12 front, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools published an evaluation of state charter school laws finding widespread improvement between 2010 and 2013. Bottom line: break out the bubbly. Thirty-five states improved their laws, only one law regressed. Seven states “essentially overhauled” their laws with major improvements-Hawaii, Rhode Island, New Mexico, Indiana, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Colorado. Ten more states-Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, and Ohio made “notable improvements” in their charter law.

Here at Jayblog we have our annual measure of success in the private choice movement the Forster vs. Mathews school choice dinner bet. Greg either doubled or tripled the standard in 2011, and followed up by easily surmounting it once more in 2012.

In 2013, ooops Greg did it again!  Three-peat!  Two new states (Alabama and South Carolina) joined the school choice ranks, North Carolina went BIG on reform, including two new voucher programs, Ohio and Wisconsin passed new statewide programs, Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Indiana and Utah improved existing programs.

So 2013 was a fine year overall for choice, grading on the curve of comparing it to past years. Compared to the needs of the country, this is all still painfully slow, so…


November 19, 2013

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Last week the Arizona Board of Regents released a report detailing the catastrophic failure of Arizona high-schools in preparing students for higher education.  Specifically the report traced the high school class of 2006, finding that half of the high-schools had five percent or less of students finishing higher education degrees or certificates within six years.  A mere 40 of the almost 460 schools produced 61% of Bachelor degrees in the AZ Class of 2006.

So, the news could have been much better. Here is the next shoe to drop- things are going to be getting increasingly more difficult in the years ahead.

The United States Census has produced population projections by state. Let’s see what the future has in store for Arizona. First a little context. Arizona’s current population is was about 6.5 million in 2012.

First challenge- a very large increase in the youth population.

Arizona Under 18

The Census Bureau projects a large year by year increase in young people.  The Census has projections for the 18 and under population, and also for the 5-17 population.  The 0-3 population is generally outside of the pre-school and K-12 system, meaning that the 18 and under population overstates the impact that the increase in the youth population will have on the state budget in 2030.  The 5-17 year old figure understates the situation due to 4 and 18-year-old students who will receive either preschool or K-12 assistance.

The next chart uses the Census Bureau’s projection for the increase in the 5-17 year old Arizona population, and puts it into context by comparing it to the size of the charter school and private choice populations of Arizona.  Arizona’s charter school law passed in 1994, and the scholarship tax credit program passed in 1997. The time between then and now is roughly comparable with the time span between now and 2030.

Arizona 5-17

Arizona school district enrollment is set to expand regardless of what we do on the parental choice front, just as it has for the last two decades. In the last two decades, the charter school law has produced a large number of those 40 schools that produced 61% of the BA degrees. In combination with the scholarship tax credit programs and the still nascent ESA program, they have taken the edge off of district enrollment growth in the aggregate.

Arizona does have high-quality charter operators who will continue to slowly but sure increase the islands of quality.  If the ESA program survives court challenge it may allow for a quicker pace of private choice expansion than the tax credit program. Creative destruction of the sort that might actually close dysfunctional schools, other than charters that fail to launch, is simply not in the cards.  The districts full of those 5% and under high schools will be going into the debt markets to build more dropout factories.

Or perhaps they will be running double shifts at the current dropout factories, as it will become increasingly difficult to finance new construction.

At precisely the same time Arizona will be dealing with a surge in the youth population, an even larger problem looms the growth in the elderly population. Again from the Census projections:

Arizona Elderly

For those of you squinting to read the numbers, that is an increase from 922,000 65+ year olds in 2010 to almost 2.4 million in 2030.

So let’s sum up the story so far- Arizona’s K-12 system currently does a very poor job in educating anything more than a thin slice of students.  Arizona has a vast increase in students on the way to coincide with an even larger increase in the elderly population.  Still with me? Okay, let’s keep going.

Demographers calculate age dependency ratios, and economists have found that they predict rates of economic growth. An age dependency ratio essentially compares the number of young and elderly people in a population to the number of working age residents. The logic behind the notion is that young people require a heavy investment in social services (primarily education) while the old also require a heavy investment (primarily in the form of health care and social insurance retirement benefits).  From the perspective of a state budgeting agency, young people don’t work, don’t pay taxes, and go to school. Older people are out of the prime earning years, often heavily use Medicaid. An age dependency ratio basically tells reveals the number of people in the young/old categories compared the number of people in neither category (i.e. people of typical working age).

The United States Census Bureau calculates an Age Dependency Ratio by adding the number of people aged 18 and under to the number of 65 and older and dividing it by the number of people aged 19 to 64. They then multiply the figure by 100 just to make things tidy. The formula looks like:

Age Dependency Ratio = ((Young + Old)/(Working Age)) * 100

Many people continue to work and pay taxes past the age of 65, making it inappropriate to view them as “dependent.” It is also the case however that many people above the age of 19 are still in school and thus are not yet working and/or paying much in the way of taxes. We all probably know hyper-productive 70 year olds and people in their 20s engaged in a six-year taxpayer subsidized odyssey of self-discovery that will not number “graduation” among an otherwise wonderful set of experiences. During periods of prolonged economic difficulties, moreover, it is obviously the case that lower rates of working age people will in fact be working, and thus making taxes.

Notwithstanding these important caveats, the broad idea behind age dependency ratios is to roughly assess the number of people riding in the cart compared to the number pulling the cart at any given time. People of course both benefit and pay into these programs at different stages of life, but the current ratios serve as a measure of societal strain.  What does the age dependency ratio for Arizona look like?

Arizona Age Dependency Ratio

Note that Arizona’s age dependency ratio in 2010 was already among the highest in the country. A social welfare state with 86 people riding in the cart for every 100 pushing it will not compute. In 2030, the Class of 2006 will be squarely among those expected to push the cart of the Arizona social welfare state.  How alarming and unfortunate then that many of them dropped out of high-school, and many more of them dropped out of college. The most immediate way Arizona can help address the looming crisis of 2030 is to get more students educated now.

I’m not sure how this plays out. I am certain that we have been thinking too small given the size of our challenges.


17,000 march in support of Charter Schools in NYC

October 10, 2013

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Looks like a big battle looming in Gotham.  I predict DeBlasio’s notion of charging rent to certain types of public schools (charters) but not to others (districts) will end in tears one way or another if he is foolish enough to pursue it. Equal protection under the law anyone?

NYC charter supporters should be calling Clint Bolick about now.

Enrichment Spending and Inequality

August 15, 2013

NYT(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The New York Times published the above chart last December here’s a link if you would like a better look. It basically shows that both college attendance and completion and private enrichment spending have been increasing at a much faster rate among wealthier students.

I find the enrichment spending trend particularly interesting for a couple of reasons. First, like Collin’s grit measure, it seems like an example of something that has been lurking in the error term of our limited understanding of K-12 trends.  I’m not sure how the authors define “enrichment spending” but $8,900 per year for well-to-do kids is striking.  How much does this matter? I’m not sure but I think it ought to be rigorously researched. It could matter quite a bit.

Four states have average family incomes for a family of four above six figures and one cannot help but wonder how much more this trend influences academic trends than in other states. Washington DC has been gentrifying strongly and has also had a large increase in the economic achievement gap despite large gains for low-income kids.  Could this trend be partially explained by this phenomenon?

What, if anything, is to be done about this? A vast increase in K-12 spending aimed at the cultural enrichment of poor children is not in the cards given the rotten state of state and federal finances, and it is just as well given the fact that the relationship between spending and outcomes is already hazy to say the least in the public school system. Just as a reminder, in the insightful words of Paul Hill:

Money is used so loosely in public education – in ways that few understand and that lack plausible connections to student learning – that no one can say how much money, if used optimally, would be enough. Accounting systems make it impossible to track how much is spent on a particular child or school, and hide the costs of programs and teacher contracts. Districts can’t choose the most cost-effective programs because they lack evidence on costs and results.

The country is broke and even if we did raise taxes to punishing levels to fund this stuff no one should feel the least bit confident that enrichment spending would actually work if funnelled through the existing system. Jay’s idea about supplementing private summer camp attendance might be a better idea but again public finances are a total mess. This is currently in the private realm and it is necessary to keep it that way.

This would seem to leave us with at least few possibilities. Better use of technology may enhance the efforts of both public and private enrichment efforts. Khan Academy is doubtlessly one of the most powerful remedial education tools ever developed. It is free of charge and has branched out into the fine arts, and it is hardly alone. Sandra Day O’Connor has an online civics project for instance but I suspect that these efforts will require some concerted effort to realise their full potential. Putting them up online is a first crucial step, but one cannot help but to fear that their impact might be reminiscent of public libraries absent a sustained effort to get children to use them.

Fareed Zakaria summarizes the current debate on inequality, social mobility and schooling, but misses the crucial point.  The problem isn’t that we spend so little on the schooling of poor children but rather that we get so little for the massive amounts spent. American Black and Hispanic students score closer to the average score in Mexico (a nation that spends a fraction of what we do per pupil and which suffers from a much greater poverty problem) than to top performing scores. Using various policy mechanisms to increase ROI for K-12 spending runs you straight into reactionary resistance but it easily represents the most promising avenue for improving the prospects for disadvantaged children.

Oh, and by the way, as the New York Daily News kindly points out it does work.

Response to Charter Competition

August 6, 2013

Check out the new article in Education Next by my current and former students, Marc Holley, Anna Egalite, and Marty Lueken on how traditional public school systems respond to competition from charters.  Using an innovative technique they gauge the types of responses exhibited by a dozen school districts.  While traditional districts engage in some non-constructive reactions, like focusing on blocking or regulating charters to minimize the competitive threat, overall they find districts rising to the challenge in positive ways.  In particular they are finding that districts often respond to charter competition by  replicating charter practices, collaborating with charters, developing innovative schools and programs, and expanding school offerings.

Of course, this analysis does not demonstrate that these positive reactions are resulting in improved student outcomes.  But responding positively is the first step that we hope will lead to better outcomes.  It is certainly a big change from earlier analyses that found districts focused almost exclusively on fighting and blocking charters.  It appears school districts have come to realize that charter competition is here to stay and it is best to try to rise to the challenge rather than squash the competition.

Defeated at Wolf 359 but Texas is not completely assimilated yet

March 24, 2013

“The fight does not go well Enterprise…rendezous with fleet remnants at.. !*!Ktzzzzzzzzsszzz!*!”

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

An old joke holds that you should never ask a man where he is from. If he is from Texas he will tell you, and if he is not, you don’t want to embarrass the poor feller.  Texans are famously/infamously proud of their state, and not without cause. Texans have been enjoying their national status as an economic juggernaut. Wildcatter George P. Mitchell is probably the first Texan to transform the economy of the 21st Century profoundly for the better but he won’t be the last.

Progressives will often bemoan the modest size of government in Texas and attempt to throw cold water on the state’s success by citing various statistics heavily influenced by the fact that the state is a huge destination for immigrants. And yet they continue to come on. Texas is an opportunity rather than a welfare magnet. Texas was the only state to gain 4 Congressional seats after the 2010 Census, all of which came from sclerotic regions of the country. Y’all have fun with that nanny state business and we will keep helping ourselves to your electoral votes, companies and jobs is a prevalent attitude in the Lone Star State.

Mitchell’s hometown of Houston, the global center of the oil business, is jumping but the good times extend well beyond the oil patch. Austin, once a smallish but funky university/state government town, now has condo towers dominating the skyline and far more on the way. A stroll through downtown during SXSW proved to be an eye-opening experience for this former Austinite. I’ve been gone for a decade and the city is both transformed and growing at a mind-boggling pace.  Oh sure, an old guard is still around to complain about traffic and the “lost golden age of Austin” back when they shared herbal blends with Willie at Liberty Lunch or whatever but no one seems to be listening much. The city and state is on a monstereous economic roll.

Texas however has an Achilles heel and doesn’t seem to be aware of it: K-12 education. To stretch a metaphor a bit, I would say that Texas is a horned frog boiling in water.

Here is the problem in two simple charts. First Texas 8th graders scoring “Proficient or Better” in 8th Grade Reading:

Texas 8th Grade NAEP ReadingSo let us take 8th Grade Reading Proficiency on NAEP as a rough proxy for solid preparation for college and/or career readiness. The NAEP proficiency standard is a high bar relative to the various state minimal skills tests floating around, but it equates well with international examinations.  The level below Proficient – “Basic” signifies “partial mastery” of grade level skills, so we are looking for full grade level mastery. So what we are looking for here is at least:

Eighth-grade students performing at the Proficient level should be able to provide relevant information and summarize main ideas and themes. They should be able to make and support inferences about a text, connect parts of a text, and analyze text features. Students performing at this level should also be able to fully substantiate judgments about content and presentation of content.

As the figure shows, not very many Texas students can actually do these sorts of things. Only a large minority of Anglo students along with a tiny minority of Hispanic and Black students show this level of reading ability.

Here is the kicker:

Texas K-12 ethnic breakdownNewsflash Tex: that 42% of Anglo kids being ready to face the rigors of the global economy doesn’t go nearly as far as it used to back in the day. Just in case I don’t have your undivided attention yet, check this out:

Texas HispanicAmongst Hispanics, the group that constitute a majority of K-12 students in the state, the functionally illiterate outnumber proficient readers by a very wide margin. Texas spent $11,146 per pupil in the public school system in 2010-11, which is an amazing sum when placed in context of just how much enrollment growth the state is attempting to accomodate. Texas has a public school population twice the size of Florida’s (with FL having the nation’s 4th largest btw) and approximately equal in size to the public school systems of the 20 smallest states combined.

The state has been adding around 80,000 students per year, which approximately equals the size of the Wyoming public school system. The public school lobbying groups pretend that any kind of choice program is going to leave the Texas public school system a financial ruin when in fact even the most far-reaching choice programs could at most put a dint in school district enrollment growth. If you waved a magic wand and moved every charter school that has opened west of the Mississippi River since 1990 into Texas, Texas school districts still would have gained hundreds of thousands of students.

Despite all of this, Texas Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick, a strong supporter of parental choice, announced last week that he would be modifying a bill to eliminate the state’s charter school cap, and to instead raise it by a few dozen schools per year. Senator Patrick did this out of necesssity just to get the bill out of the committee. Worse still, this is happening in a session that seems destined to dummy down the state’s high-school graduation requirements in a major fashion. We have yet to reach the end of the movie, but this is the part where things are looking bleak for the good guys.

Don’t worry Tex…even though I control your K-12 vote I will still let you describe yourself as “conservative”…

Rather than blame the lawmakers, I’ll go ahead and blame people like myself. We reformers have done a poor job thus far in communicating the reality of the Texas situation. Consequently, there is a greatly misplaced complacency with regards to K-12 policy. We must do much better.

The greatest weakness of the powerful Status-Quo Collective that has assimilated many Austin decision makers is that they have no plausible plan for improving the Texas public education system. The problems embodied in the figures above (and others) will continue to go unaddressed while they seek yet more money for an outdated and ineffective system of schooling.

The current Texas public education system is however taking the state in a direction that almost no one will want to go. By educating only a small cadre of students to participate and prosper in the global economy, the future of the state will begin to look like that of Brazil in the late 20th Century, which one of my professors once described to me as “Belgium floating on top of India.”

As a purely economic matter, Texas can continue to import college educated workers from the less dynamic states indefinitely. As a matter of socio-economics however one cannot avoid asking fundamental questions regarding the long-term stability of both the prosperity and even democracy itself.  A public education system with only 17% of Hispanics and 15% of Black students reading proficiently constitutes a foundation of sand for the opportunity society needed to secure the future.

Time to choose…

In short, Texas can either continue to be Texas- a rapidly growing opportunity society, or it can morph into California. From my perspective in the nearby cactus-patch, California looks like a place from which Belgians are fleeing and have been for decades now-a rather loud wake up call. Ironically this leaves “progressive” California as a society increasingly divided by wealth and race. Politically incapable of addressing their education problems, California looks set to become Monaco floating on top of India. Good luck with that.

In the long run, Texans will either embrace their ideals or their education status-quo. It will become increasingly obvious that they cannot do both.

Washington Post on Charter Schools in DC

February 15, 2013

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Check out this fascinating article in the WaPo regarding the ever growing market share of charter schools in the District of Columbia. Blended learning schools will debut soon, DCPS continues to shrink, making some tetchy. Money quote:

Rocketship’s charter application — which is the largest ever to come before District officials, and which might win approval this month — arrives on the heels of Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s decision to close 15 half-empty city schools, highlighting an intense debate about the future of public education in the nation’s capital.

A growing number of activists have raised concerns that the traditional school system, facing stiffer-than-ever competition from charters, is in danger of being relegated to a permanently shrunken role. And they worry that Washington has yet to confront what that could mean for taxpayers, families and neighborhoods.

“Maybe we need an entire school system full of charters,” said Virginia Spatz, who co-hosts a community-radio talk show on D.C. education. “But we need to have that after public conversation, not by accident.”

With due respect to Ms. Spatz, there doesn’t seem to be anything accidental about this to me- DC parents will ultimately decide how many charter and district schools they want by voting with the feet of their children.

District or Charter Schools in the District of Columbia?

May 18, 2012

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

DC’s NAEP numbers allowed for some additional controls to be introduced when comparing charter and district schools than I was able to do with the Milwaukee comparison. The following chart shows the percentage of general education program students who qualify for a free or reduced lunch scoring “Basic or Better” on the 2011 NAEP exams. Special education students, ELL students and middle/high income students are not included in order to get a quick closer to apples to apples comparison.

Now of course for a real apples to apples you need a random assignment study, but those have been done and find results favorable to charter schools. This chart doesn’t address the topic of valid stastical significance, but rather whether the differences are meaningful.

Considering that charters get far less money that DCPS per pupil and show higher levels of academic achievement, this looks to be a success, albeit both the blue and the red columns leave much to be desired. The red columns leave much more to desired however, especially when you consider that that they are wallowing in money.


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