Stop or My Florida Charter Mom will Shoot!

August 15, 2016

Move aside Tallahassee- let me show you how to do this!

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

To take a bit of liberty with the Bard:

Sweet are the uses of brutality,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.

So it turns out Florida parents are every bit as ruthless as Arizona parents in shutting down charter schools into which they do not care to enroll their children. The average years of operation for a closed FL charter was a mere 3.71 years (compared to 4 in Arizona) with an average of 113 students enrolled in the final year of operation (compared to 62 in Arizona).

Oh and just a reminder- Darwinian brutality practiced by parents towards schools seems to have worked wonders for the overall effectiveness of the Florida charter sector:

Florida charter 2013 NAEPFlorida charter reading scores NAEP

Arizona Parents Put Charter Schools Out of Business Early and Often

August 12, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I was examining data on charter school closures in Arizona between the years 2000 and 2013, and noticed a pattern in the data. The vast majority of schools on the closure list did not operate very long and tended to be very light on enrollment in the last year they operated.  I averaged the available data and found that the average closed school had operated four years, and had an average of 62 students enrolled in their final year of operation.

Mind you that Arizona’s charter law grants 15 year charters, and that something unusual would need to occur in order to have authorities intervene before such time.

So a couple of notes before discussing the main implication since Arizona grants 15 year charters, the first of them would not have come up for renewal until 2010 or so, and it would have been a bit of a trickle at first. Currently however you’ll have a group of schools up for 15 year renewals every year.  The data examined above end around 2013, and has missing data.

The state publishes a list of school closures, and if you examine it, you’ll see a large number of “voluntarily surrendered” or “problems with facility” type explanations, very few “charter revoked.” This leaves a lot of grey area whereby schools give up the ghost perhaps to save themselves the embarrassment of not being renewed- like this charter set up by the University of Arizona College of Education that closed in 2013- but with it also being possible that other factors were going to sink them regardless. The official “charter revoked” explanation almost certainly understates the current role of the authorizing board imo.

Now, back to the heart of things- Arizona parents seem extremely adept at putting down charter schools with extreme prejudice. Arizona parents detonate far more schools on the launching pad compared to the number we see bumbling ineffectively through the term of their charter to be shut by authorities (or to give up the ghost in year 14 in an ambiguous fashion). Both of these things happen, but the former happens with much greater regularity than the latter. Having a vibrant system of open enrollment, charter schools and some private school choice means that Arizona parents can take the view that life is too short have your child enrolled in an ineffective institution.

States have different circumstances and different political cultures. The circumstances in Arizona when the charter law passed in 1994 involved a crushing level of enrollment growth and a district system with a very low level of average performance. No one was going to want to adopt hyper-cautious authorizing when the state was bankrupting itself to build new (usually low performing) district facilities.  “Educators are willing to open new K-12 spaces without facility funding and they shut down if they don’t cut it? Hand me the dice!” said everyone in Arizona with any sense in 1994.

By the way- Darwinian competition can work wonders academically over time:

Arizona Mercury 2

AZ Charter 2015 NAEP 8m

Open lots of new schools, let parents put them down, if and when a school you think is a stinker survives the wrath of the parents you can not renew the charter if you have that sort of confidence in your own judgement being superior to that of the parents (careful with that).  If you feel a compulsion to intervene best to do it on the back-end in my view, as it seems like getting large numbers of new schools to start represents a key to success.  I fully agree with Jay’s reasons for trepidation on such a substitution, but also can’t embrace throwing renewals (which are for 20 years in Arizona) around like:

I’ll try to look at the success and/or failure of the parents in other states in closing charters in the future.



But that was 30 years ago when they used to have a show

August 11, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Barry Manilow’s classic song Copacabana is a very catchy upbeat tune with a sad underlying story about a person living in the past:

Her name is Lola, she was a showgirl
But that was thirty years ago, when they used to have a show
Now it’s a disco, but not for Lola
Still in dress she used to wear
Faded feathers in her hair
She sits there so refined, and drinks herself half-blind
She lost her youth and she lost her Tony
Now she’s lost her mind

For reasons that may become apparent if you read it, this column responding to one published by myself and Lisa Graham Keegan in the Arizona Republic brought the unfortunate image of Lola to mind. Our opponent’s column is a pretty standard recitation of anti-choice talking points, but there is an underlying sadness to it in my opinion.

Arizona lawmakers passed charter schools in 1994 and the first private choice program in 1997.  So thirty years ago districts were effectively Arizona’s only show. We had parental choice back in those days, but it was the old-fashioned kind. If you could afford to buy a house in Scottsdale etc. or to pay for the tuition at Brophy Prep, you had choice in the lost near monopoly era of Arizona K-12. Otherwise, it was unfortunate to be you.

I’ve written on this blog previously just how awful the results were from this era. The NAEP gave us state level data from 1992 and 1994 before our policymakers began any effort to broaden the ability to exercise choice. Only 28% of Anglo 4th graders read proficiently in, er, English in 1992. Arizona still has a lot of work to do, but at least has been trending in the right direction.

I’m not going to bother to point by point this column, but rather to simply focus on a few faded feathers in its hair. Approximately 3,000 children participate in the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Account program, and the majority of them are children with disabilities. Arizona has a great many individual high schools with more than 3,000 students, and yet in the fever dreams of opponents these kids should be made into scapegoats for all the problems of public education. It’s sad.

Arizona has been leading the nation in 4th to 8th cohort gains on NAEP, but rather than celebrate this fact and seek more, some would rather wallow in learned helplessness, convinced that they can’t do better unless they receive money that the state does not have. It’s sad.

Part and parcel of this complaint is to claim that districts take “all comers” while charter do not. Arizona charters however must conduct admission lotteries while district open enrollment decisions are left entirely to the schools. Fancy district schools are open to “all comers” if you can afford to purchase housing in their attendance zones, otherwise they all to often resemble Aspen vacations or shiny new German sports sedans- wonderful things if you can afford them. We started the process to democratize the opportunity to choose, but some prefer to keep choice as a privilege for the few rather than the birthright of all. It’s sad.

Charter schools have been in operation in Arizona for over twenty years. Some district educators have taken up the challenge to compete and I admire them for it. Others spend their time complaining about charter schools non-stop.  Charter school students score like a New England state on NAEP with a majority minority student population and show even an even larger advantage in the state exam, but….lawmakers didn’t include them in a seldom-read auditor general report, so ah they must be evil.

Some (not all by a longshot!) spend their efforts yearning for a near monopoly era that is never coming back.  In my youth growing up in the South I can remember a few old people who would babble about the “War of Northern Aggression” and whatnot. It’s a bad look to live in the past. There are real and very deep issues to debate when fashioning choice policy but to engage in them seriously one must broaden beyond stale talking points. Quite frankly Arizona districts deserve better advocacy strategies than complaining about the disco ball while yearning for what was more of a stone than a golden age. This “strategy” is unworthy of the dignity of the great many outstanding educators working very hard in Arizona’s improving district school system.

It’s time to lose the faded feathers.




Colorado Faces the Future

July 22, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

This week I’ve been writing about Colorado’s charter school sector’s delightfully high NAEP scores. To wrap this up, I’d like to put this success in a broader context of Colorado’s present and future.

So if you’ve been to Denver in the last few years, it is hard not to notice that the place is booming. The Big Bird construction cranes kind of give it away.  Growing up in oil-boom Texas, I was told about an old saying that held that if you see more than two Big Bird Cranes in a downtown area get ready for a crash. Denver seems to be defying this old nostrum comfortably. So far.

Favorable age demography stands as big if subtle factor in favor of Colorado’s boom.  The state has an unusually large working age population vis-a-vis the elderly and youth populations. Demographers quantify this through age dependency ratios- take the number of working age people (18-64) and dividing that by the combined number of 17 and younger and 65 and older. The basic idea is that at any given time working age people are pushing society’s cart, while young people are drawing upon public services such as education (for the young) and healthcare (for the elderly) at high rates.

Colorado age dependency


In 2010 Colorado had an age dependency ratio similar to that of the United States as a whole in the 1980s and 1990s.  Lots of working age people with relatively few elderly and young people worked wonders for the United States back then as the Baby Boomers entered their prime working, earning and taxpaying years.  We even had these quaint things called “budget surpluses” at the federal level in the 1990s while the Republicans and Democrats locked each other up and the tax revenue continued to pour in.

Ooops almost got drawn down the 1990s nostalgia event horizon. In any case with one of the nation’s lowest age dependency ratios, le bon temps continuer à rouler dans le Colorado! Perhaps Colorado will make better use of the current boom than the country made of the 1990s in education, as you see from the figure above that the Census Bureau does not project favorable age demography to last.

Colorado youth and elderly

Colorado is currently advantaged by a large middle-aged population, but middle-aged people have a funny way of becoming old.  Elderly people typically move out of their prime earning years, thus paying fewer taxes, and represent some of the most expensive patients in our health care system, some of which state taxpayers foot the bill. A growing elderly population creates strains on all other state spending priorities.

Over the next 15 years, through a combination of an expanding youth population and (mostly) through population aging, the Census Bureau projects Colorado’s total age dependency ratio to move from one of the lowest in the nation in 2010 (55) to a number that is far higher than any state in 2010 (72).  The Colorado of 2030 will have greater age demographic challenges than the Arizona or Florida of today.

One of the few things you can do about this now- world class education results. The United States largely squandered this opportunity in the 1990s, and the consequences seem ever more obvious and ominous.  The American economy may or may not be “rigged” but it seems terribly likely to seem that way to those who did not acquire the knowledge and skills to succeed in life in school. Is there any aspect of American life more rigged than K-12 education?

Colorado’s embrace of charter schools has rewarded the state with a highly effective system of schools producing globally competitive results.  A survey found that 66% of Colorado charter schools had wait lists, and they average size of the wait lists was larger than the average student enrollment of a charter school. Wonderful though it is, one can infer from this that the charter sector alone cannot satisfy parental demand for options. Colorado needs as much improvement as it can get from any and all available sources. More effective and more cost effective education is precisely what Colorado needs and what charter schools have delivered, but the pace needs to quicken.

Much of the Colorado working age population of 2030 will be going back to school in a few weeks. A slowly growing but still minority of these students show globally competitive academic achievement. The clock is ticking- Colorado has the opportunity not to repeat America’s mistakes from the 1990s, but it is far from a given. Unless you succeed, you’ll live to regret it. Colorado has however a record of success to build upon- fire up the Big Birds!



Rocky Mountain HIGHHHHH!!! (State Score Backup!)

July 21, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I’ve been digging into the very impressive NAEP scores of Colorado charter schools.  NAEP is the gold-standard of academic testing data, but it does make use of sampling whereby a representative sample of students in each state takes the NAEP rather than every single student. Charter school students in Colorado are now more numerous than say left handed kids with blonde hair and blue eyes, and each NAEP example involves a separate sample of students.  So a single sky-high score on one of the NAEP exams for charter school students could easily be the product of a favorable sample, solid achievement across all four tests instills confidence.

Still it is good to examine other testing data that does not involve sampling. The Colorado Department of Education released a 2016 State of Charter Schools Triennial Report that contains state testing data comparisons for charter and district schools. This data addresses a different question than what we have examined in the previous two posts. Previous posts have demonstrated that Colorado charter schools show top-notch performance across a variety of subgroups when compared to high-performing states. The data below uses state data to address how Colorado charter students scored compared to Colorado district students.

These data have further limitations. The report notes them as “preliminary” and we do not have access to the raw data- only the percentages of students meeting for exceeding grade level benchmarks. The Arizona Charter School Association analysed state data and determined that the state data displayed an even larger gap between charter and districts than the NAEP gaps. Without analysis however, we can’t make comparisons between state and NAEP data. Note also that judging by NAEP that Colorado’s district system is relatively high performing itself compared to other states.

With those caveats in mind, the state data shows a consistent advantage for charter students in math:



And in English Language Arts:

CO PARCC Reading

The report contains some breakdowns by student subgroups (family income, ethnicity) on both the current and previous state exam. These comparisons broadly favor the charter schools. The report also presents aggregate data on schools by type under the state’s accountability framework:


For those squinting at their Ipads, the last four columns basically show that a smaller percentage of Colorado charters fell into the “Does Not Meet/Approaching” category (40.52% to 52.07%) than districts, and a larger percentage made either “Meets/Exceeds” (59.48% for charters, 48.93% for districts).

The overall conclusion of these data is not that Colorado charter schools are “good” while Colorado district schools are “bad” whatsoever. Good or bad for whom? The good news for Coloradans is that you have a system of independent public schools operating at scale and producing on average world-class academic results.

Keep it up- in the concluding post I’ll show how Colorado’s need for highly skilled/educated workers is set to grow over time.

Rocky Mountain HIGHHHHH!!! (Reading Scores Too!)

July 20, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Yesterday we ran through the 2015 NAEP Mathematics scores for Colorado charter schools for various available subgroups. Today we will run through the 2015 Reading NAEP scores for Colorado charter schools, comparing them to the top 10 statewide averages. Let’s start with scores by ethnicity, I’ve truncated these charts but just for perspective the lowest statewide average for Anglos students in 2015 was 261.

CO charter reading Anglos

and for Hispanic students (lowest statewide average =245):

CO charter reading Hispanic


Next we’ll look at scores by Free and Reduced Lunch status. The lowest statewide average for FRL kids in 2015 = 245:

CO charter reading FRL

and students not eligible for FRL (lowest statewide average = 266):

CO charter reading non-FRL

The Colorado Department of Education report indicates that Colorado charter schools have more ELL kids than districts, fewer special education kids. The NAEP does not provide standalone estimates for ELL or Special Education students (sub-samples of sub-samples are tough) but we can compare the general education scores of Colorado charter schools to the general education scores of the top 10 states. The lowest statewide average in 2015 for general education students stood at 257.

CO charter reading general ed

So just as a reminder from the work of Peterson et al, if you are in the Massachusetts neighborhood on NAEP, you are also keeping company with the academic achievement of the upper echelon of European and Asian countries.  So to all the Colorado charter students, educators and supportive policymakers and philanthropists here is to you:

Rocky Mountain HIGHHHHHH!!! (Charter Test Scores!)

July 19, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Colorado’s Department of Education released a study of state scores showing that the state’s charter schools scored higher than districts on the state exam. So in 2015 Colorado charter school students also rocked the NAEP.  The charts below will slice and dice the NAEP 8th grade math exam by subgroups, and displays Colorado charter students only to the top 10 scoring states by subgroup.  Colorado charter students did very well on the other NAEP exams as well, scoring for instance near the very top in overall 8th grade reading, but we will use 8th grade math for purposes of illustration.

Colorado Anglo students attending charter schools came out on top compared to the states with the top overall math scores for Anglos:

CO charter 1

Colorado Hispanic students attending charter schools were near the top (Anglos and Hispanics were the two groups numerous enough for NAEP to report on for Colorado charters):

Co charter 2

What about for kids whose family incomes qualify for a Free or Reduced Price lunch under federal guidelines?

Co Charter 3

What about kids above the FRL threshold?

Co Charter 4

Finally there is always a chance that charter schools have a smaller percentage of English Language Learners and/or Special Education students. The chart below therefore only compares the scores of general education students in Colorado charter schools to general education students in the top 10 states.

CO charter 5

How should folks in Colorado feel about all of this? Approximately like:


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