Ziebarth Defends the Pageant

February 9, 2018

Miss Indiana crowned as Miss America

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Todd Ziebarth from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has responded to criticism from yours truly, Max Eden and others regarding the soundness of judging charter school laws based on adherence to a model bill, rather than by their results. I encourage you to read Todd’s response.

Ziebarth in essence claims that facts on the ground in the last five laws passed rather than flaws in the laws themselves have dampened the impact of otherwise good laws. I have no reason to doubt that differences in circumstances from state to state will influence speed out of the gate. I however do not share Ziebarth’s preference for ranking charter laws by their adherence to a model bill when it is possible to judge them by their results, like the Brookings Institute did in this map:

This map measures the percentage of students by state who have access to a charter school in their zip code. It’s not a perfect measure- after all some zip codes have multiple charter schools. Perhaps the measure could be improved upon. When however you see states with near zero percentages on this map near the top of a ranking list, something seems out of sorts with the rankings. Yes circumstances can influence how well you come out of the gate, five new laws in a row failing to produce many schools isn’t a fluke, it looks more like a pattern.

Ziebarth notes that if we don’t include the recent charter bills that have yet to produce many charters, then you get a list like (each state listed along with the % of charter students). This revised list however remains problematic.

1 Indiana 4%
2 Colorado 13%
3 Minnesota 6%
4 District of Columbia 46%
5 Florida 10%
6 Nevada 8%
7 Louisiana 11%
8 Massachusetts 4%
9 New York 5%
10 Arizona 17%

Ok, so the top rated law (Indiana) only produced charter schools within the zip codes of 19.5% of Indiana students, and enrolls 4% of the student population. The law has been in operation for a long time, but you as yet cannot even get a NAEP score for their schools because of the wee-tiny size of the population. If one is a utilitarian sort, any set of criteria that ranks Indiana as having the top charter school law seems in need of revision.

Minnesota has the oldest of all charter school laws, but only six percent of the kids, and 37.7% of kids having access to a charter in their zip code for a law that passed in 1991. There is a word for that: contained. Minnesota gets a ton of credit for inventing charter schools, but their law doesn’t seem to be doing a whole lot to provide families with opportunities, or producing competitive pressure to shake things up.

DC meanwhile has 46% of total kids and 87% of kids have access to a charter school in their zip code. It’s also easy to find evidence of academic success for DC charters. Judging by results, this certainly looks like a much better charter law than Indiana or Minnesota. Ironically, the main reason NAPCS dings the DC charter law in their scoring metric is for a lack of equitable funding. DC charters however seem to be funded at a high enough level to capture 46% of the market, to provide access to 87% of kids, and to produce better results than DCPS. They also receive more generous funding per pupil than most (all?) states. There is no contest between DC and either Indiana or Minnesota in terms of outcomes in my book.

Ok I could go on but I think the horse is dead. We’ve reached the point where it is possible to judge charter sectors by outcomes, rather than by a model bill beauty pageant criteria.

In the end charter school laws either produce seats or they don’t. Laws that fail to produce seats are failures. Laws that produce only a few seats are disappointments. Philanthropists should carefully reexamine their grant metrics to guard against the possibility that they have created a powerful incentive for groups to seek the passage of charter laws regardless of whether they ever produce many charter seats. I haven’t seen grant agreements, but I have watched as the last five laws failed to produce many schools. We are supposed to be creating meaningful opportunity for kids rather than merely colored maps.

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It’s Time for Technocratic Beauty Pageant Charter Rankings to End

February 2, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools released their new rankings of charter school laws. I gave NACSA grief for their rankings, so I need to be an equal opportunity offender in the interests of consistency I need to do the same for NAPCS. Both sets of rankings rate state charter laws against a model bill, and as a consequence, both wind up ranking relatively weak charter laws in their top 10. There is an obvious problem here- we may not know what a good charter law is, and this may be especially the case given the diversity of needs and cultures across states. Best then to judge charter laws by their outcomes, and here is where you find difficult to justify patterns in the model bill rankings.

Both NACSA and NAPCS have ranked Indiana as the top ranked charter law. There’s a problem with this however as Indiana’s charter school law has not produced many “charter schools.” The Brookings Hamilton project provided this handy map that shows the percentage of students per state that have a charter school operating in their zip code:

A reasonable way to judge the quality of a charter law in my book would be some combination of the following factors-how many charter school seats has your law produced, what does the average achievement of charter school students look like, and the degree of competitive pressure is being generated on the district system. Indiana appears meh on all three fronts, except with regards to academics where they have been too small to show up in the NAEP samples thus far.

So if a judging against a model bill puts Indiana on top, is it possible that there is something wrong with the model bill itself? Yesterday during a lively conversation on social media Max Eden made the following observations regarding states landing in the top 10 of the NAPCS rankings:

Mississippi is 5 years old. There are two charter schools there.

Maine is 8 years old. There are nine schools there.

Washington state’s law is six years old. They have 8 schools. And what, then, are the rational grounds for believing that these newer laws are superior?

So, three of your top 10 states have produced 20 schools in 20 years. There is no rational case for why this is a better approach. If state policymakers follow your model law, charter growth will be strangled.

You need to be very innocent with lots of solid alibis if Max Eden is prosecuting a case against you, and well, things are looking pretty grim for the model bill approach. Referencing the handy Brookings map above we see only 4.3% of Maine students have a charter school operating in their zip code. Less than one percent in Washington, and then you Mississippi…zero point zero.

This map is from 2015 so things are somewhat better now, but not much and the point remains. Kentucky passed a charter law, and it also landed in the NAPCS top 10. I read a late (not final) version of the bill, and based upon that reading I would say we should expect the sort of pace that Eden noted in Maine, Mississippi and Washington. The draft I read greatly empowered school districts to interfere with the operations of charter schools to an extent that struck me as likely to dissuade rational actors from coming in from out of state, and all but the most gung-ho in-state operators.

If charter school laws that fail to produce charter schools are topping your rankings, it is time to reexamine the bill. There looks to be something or somethings deeply wrong with it. In meantime, congratulations to Indiana for winning what amounts to a technocratic beauty pageant.

OMG! I knew that one year default closure provision would impress the judges!

If you’d like to see the states whose students are actually benefiting from their state’s charter laws, the Brookings map is a good place to start. The first duty of a charter school law is to provide charter school seats- any charter law is somewhere on the boutique curiosity to abject failure spectrum without them. Summing up it is best to always remember:

Size does matter!