Projects to Study and Improve School Choice to Be Launched
This article was originally published in Education Week, September 20, 2004
By Lynn Olson
Researchers from the University of Washington in Seattle announced two new, multimillion-dollar initiatives last week design ed to move the debate about school choice from the ideological to the practical realm.
One, "Doing Choice Right," financed at $1.5 million over three years, will address some of the practical challenges in carrying out choice programs. The other, a National Charter Schools Research Center, subsidized at about $1.5 million annually, will try to improve the quality of research on charter schools and ensure that those who authorize, finance, and operate them share lessons learned about effective practices.
Paul T. Hill, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, will serve as the principal investigator for Doing Choice Right and as the chairman of the new research center.
The Doing Choice Right initiative builds on the efforts of the National Working Commission on Choice in K-12 Education. ("Panel Says Choice's Benefits Worth Risks," Nov. 19, 2003.)
Mr. Hill, the chairman of that panel, argued that the report it released last November took the "ideological thorn" out of the choice debate, by focusing attention on the practical issues associated with choice. But, he added, "there are all kinds of 'how' questions" that now must be addressed. Those range from how best to inform parents of their children's options to how to oversee school performance.
Those were some of the topics tackled here last week by people with experience in managing choice programs—including both charter schools and vouchers—during a two-day forum at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, designed to kick off the Doing Choice Right initiative.
Mr. Hill, also a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings, said the new research center would set up a national network of charter school scholars who could identify high-priority questions and ensure that such schools are studied well, in addition to rebutting "misleading or invalid studies."
In the first year, the center will launch two research projects, one on student achievement in charter schools and another on barriers to scaling up charter schools and best practices in overcoming those barriers. The center also will produce an annual report on the condition of charter schools, which are publicly financed but largely autonomous.
But Mr. Hill conceded that the center would have to prove itself as a balanced and evidence-based source of information in a field beset by controversy, such as the recent storm over an American Federation of Teachers analysis of charter school per formance. (See "AFT Charter School Study Sparks Heated National Debate," Sept. 1, 2001.)
To help in that effort, the center will pull together an advisory group and conduct only about one-third of the research itself.
The Doing Choice Right initiative, as one of its first projects, plans to use a combination of focus groups and surveys to identify the kinds of information parents need to make decisions about school choice.
"One of the biggest issues all of us face is being sure parents have the right information to take advantage of whatever their choices are," Virginia Walden-Ford, the executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice, said during the two-day forum here.
As of this fall, the District of Columbia has 38 charter schools, a private, voucher-style scholarship program, and a new federally financed voucher program. Even so, said Ms. Ford, "getting parents to indicate interest and actually getting them to apply for the program, we found, were two different issues."
Of the more than 1,600 voucher slots available under the federal legislation, only 1,019 will be filled this fall.
Roberta Kitchen, a parent from Cleveland who took advantage of that city's charter and voucher options, worries that many families get their information from unsympathetic local news media. "I know that this really impacts how parents feel about accepting the voucher," she said.
Moreover, said Mr. Hill, noting the many hoops parents must jump through to apply to such programs, "it's really hard to get people excited about a long shot."
'It Ain't Wonderful'
Most of those at the forum said school districts are getting better at ensuring charter schools get their fair share of resources in a timely fashion.
More often, the problem is that districts themselves do not track or control their resources well, said Kaleem Caire, the project director for the D.C. K-12 Education Initiative, a venture aimed at strengthening education in the nation's capital. "It's not always that these folks are trying to hold back money," he said.
Practitioners argued that the best defense is for charter school operators and others to study their state statutes and know what they are entitled to. But they also acknowledged that choice advocates may have erred initially in suggesting they could or should educate children for less.
"In reality, it ain't wonderful, and we shouldn't be getting less money," said Howard L. Fuller, the board chairman of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, and a former Milwaukee superintendent.
The Doing Choice Right project also plans to study examples of districts that have successfully adapted to choice while maintaining the quality in their traditional public schools. It also hopes to craft models of good authorizer practice in situations where districts must oversee both their own schools and others financed via chartering or vouchers.
Foundation support for the Doing Choice Right project comes from the Annie E. Casey and the Bill & Melinda Gates foundations. The National Charter Schools Research Center is supported by those two philanthropies as well as the Pisces Foundation, the Walton Foundation, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, the Rodel Foundation, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, and the Daniels Fund.