School Choice & Charters

Tumultuous Year in School Choice Signals Changes Ahead in K-12

By Sean Cavanagh — December 28, 2012 7 min read
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Few areas of education policy generated as much clamor in 2012 as the world of charters, vouchers, and school choice. It was a crowded and often confusing landscape, one that gave rise to big-time changes in state policy, legal and ballot battles, surges in school growth and dramatic collapses, and debates about how much or how little oversight policymakers should impose on existing, as well as fast-emerging, public and private sector models.

Here’s my list of the top 10 most important stories in Choiceland from the past year. I’ll leave it to readers to rank them individually. You’ve probably got an actual or imagined list of your own, so let me know where I’m right or wrong, if you’re so inspired.

Desert Trails. A group of parents in the Mojave Desert community of Adelanto, Calif., took the first steps toward using a “parent trigger” law to overhaul struggling Desert Trails Elementary School—agreeing to hire a charter school operator with that work, after a judge ruled that they could do so. If that effort takes hold, it would be the first successful use of a parent trigger policy in the country’s history.

Trigger laws, for those who don’t know, allow for the overhaul of a school’s structure, leadership, or management, if a majority of parents vote by petition to take that step.

Operators Expand. Some of the most highly-touted charter school operators, such as Aspire Public Schools and Rocketship Education, set in motion plans to open charters in new states. Some of those operators were courted heavily by cities and states, but they generally were slow and selective in choosing suitors.

Catholic Schools Squeezed. There’s pretty compelling evidence that Catholic schools, long a fixture in urban education, are facing increasing pressures from the no-cost, public alternative: charter schools. Researchers Abraham Lackman and Richard Buddin each produced insightful analyses on the challenges facing Catholic schools from their secular competitors, who are today receiving broad bipartisan support at the state and federal levels.

More Facilities, Fewer Caps. This trend stretches back before the beginning of 2012, but more states are loosening caps on charter school growth and making it easier for them to find affordable facilities—a hurdle that charter advocates often say stands in the way of opening new schools.

Voucher Growth. This was another year in which states approved new and expanded private-school voucher models, largely with Republican backing. Arizona, Louisiana, and Virginia were some of the states that took action on this front, and many others considered legislation to do so. Tax-credit scholarship programs, controversial though more politically palatable than straight-up vouchers, appear to be gaining as a favorite brand of private school vouchers among lawmakers.

Bayou Blueprint. This voucher model warrants its own mention. Over the objections of Democrats, unions, and school boards, Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal signed into law a policy that seeks to usher in private school choice on multiple fronts - vouchers for low- and moderate-income families with kids in struggling schools; choice of individual courses from public schools or private companies; college aid for students who graduate high school early.

But not so fast—Jindal’s favored method for covering the cost of vouchers was ruled unconstitutional by a state court judge, leaving the program’s future in doubt. Jindal vows to appeal. More to come.

Questionable Activity. There were numerous instances of charter school officials—in Oakland, Calif., New York, Philadelphia, and other places—being accused of engaging in deceptive or unscrupulous business practices. Their actions brought crackdowns by local district officials, and in some cases, actions from state or federal law enforcement.

Power Struggles. Who should have the power to approve charters? Should it be local school district officials, who may not be inclined to approve a new competitor? Or independent state entities, even over the objections of local districts? This fight played out in a number of states, which leads us to...

Charter Victories at the Polls. Voters in Georgia on Nov. 6 approved a ballot measure to create a statewide entity with the power to approve new charters over local objections. Washington state voters for the first time approved allowing charter schools, making it the 42nd state in the country to allow them.

Shutdowns. Missouri’s state board of education voted to close a group of charters managed by Imagine Schools, in what might be the largest shutdown of a charter operation in the country. The schools had been dogged by questions about their academic performance and finances. The closures left parents and students scrambling for alternative options.


What should you be looking for in 2013? Here are several issues to keep an eye on:

Continued Growth... The number of charters continues to grow nationwide, and in at least one urban center, New Orleans, they’ve become the dominant school model. How will traditional public schools respond to this competition?

And Tensions. And how will state and local authorizers charged with approving charters resolve lingering questions about their capacity to adequately regulate them, and provide funding for them. Those tensions emerged in very different contexts in Los Angeles, and New Hampshire, among other places.

Court Fights. Look for the legal punches and counterpunches to continue in states that adopt new voucher programs, and look for voucher supporters to craft laws aimed at hewing to the language of their individual states’ constitutions.

Whither the Trigger? So far, debates over parent trigger laws in the states that have approved them have largely been intellectual exercises, partly because those policies are so new that struggling schools haven’t yet faced sanctions that would allow a parent-directed takeover. As the laws mature, will more parents take pursue the trigger option? Or will they be wary of the controversies that have engulfed trigger efforts in communities like Compton (Calif.) and Adelanto?

Vouchers Under Examination. Some large-scale voucher programs, such as Indiana’s and Louisiana’s, have included provisions that require students receiving private school scholarships to take part in state tests, a step opposed by some choice advocates, who argue that it infringes on the domain of private schools. (Some voucher programs already require student participation in state or nationally normed referenced exams.) As more test results roll in, how will public and private schools’ performance stack up? And will other states that approve new voucher models feel obligated to attach state testing mandates to them?

Early to College. A 2011 Indiana law allows students who finish high school early to use a portion of their per-pupil aid to attend public or private colleges. (Louisiana has approved a similar policy, which is subject to the above-referenced legal challenge.) Keep an eye on whether students flock to these programs, and whether they inspire other states to break down the barriers between K-12 and college funding streams.

Oversight. In some states, about one-fifth of all charters that open shut their doors. In others, hardly any get shut down. A number of advocates and organizations, most notably the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, are calling for state and local officials to be given more responsibility for shutting down laggard charters, and more direction on when to do so. Some school-choice advocates have traditionally been wary of that kind of hard-line regulation, saying parents are the best judges of charters’ quality. Who will state policymakers listen to?

Who Benefits? To what extent will the emergence of large-scale voucher programs in Indiana and Louisiana help Catholic schools and other private schools keep up enrollment and hold down costs? And will those laws not only help in-state private schools, but inspire out-of-state providers to pack up and move in, in the hope of attracting students whose tuitions are covered by taxpayers?

Lessons for Public Schools. Look for traditional public schools to become more discerning judges of the kinds of practices they consider adopting from charters—in scheduling, tutoring, technology, and other areas—as more precise information rolls in about the benefits and costs associated with those changes.

Access and Equity. Questions about whether charters are serving sufficient numbers of students with special needs and other challenges surfaced last year (a federal report brought focus to the issue), and the issue shows no signs of fading away.

Cybers. There is a lot of interest in paving the way for the expansion of online or cyber charters in the states, and there’s also considerable opposition in some quarters, from those who say those schools haven’t performed up to standards.

Of course, part of the fun in making prognostications is the possibility you’ll get it wrong. This much seems certain: Expect a lot more news, and plenty of tumult, in the year to come.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.