national newsletter

How charter advocates lost a key fight

Welcome to Chalkbeat’s national newsletter! We’re Matt Barnum and Sarah Darville, Chalkbeat’s national team. Our goal is to help you make sense of the messy, fascinating, often controversial efforts to improve education for poor students across the country. Did someone forward? You can subscribe here.


The big story

Charter school advocates suffered a huge loss in 2016, when Massachusetts voters soundly rejected an effort to raise the state’s charter cap. Now Chalkbeat has obtained part of an internal memo giving a detailed accounting of why they lost.

The analysis — commissioned by the Walton Education Coalition and based on interviews, voter focus groups, and internal polls — points to several major missteps. Here are some of the key takeaways:

  • Opponents’ message, about improving public schools for everyone, resonated with voters more than the pro-charter messages.
  • Major Democratic players like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders coming out against the initiative helped exacerbate a partisan divide.
  • Teachers unions spent big money and helped mobilize grassroots opposition among very trusted messengers: local teachers, while charter teachers largely stayed out of the fight.
  • There was infighting between charter advocates on strategy.

The election results continue to reverberate nationally and locally. A spokesperson for the state’s charter association said it will take a while to regain support for charter schools. “We didn’t build it overnight — we kind of lost it overnight — so it won’t be rebuilt overnight,” he said. More here.

And speaking of messaging: advocates of “personalized learning” have a new recommendations for persuading families of the benefits of the concept. They encourage school leaders to avoid talk of technology and testing — key ideas associated with personalized learning. Read our full story here.


Local stories to watch

  • “I don’t understand why they keep trying online testing.” Tennessee’s online state tests have gone off the rails — again. On day one, students couldn’t log on; on day two, many students were interrupted by glitches. State officials say a “deliberate attack” may be to blame.
  • Candidates backed by a powerful coalition swept Newark’s historic school-board election. The new members will be on the first board to wield full control over the city’s schools in over two decades.
  • The wave of teacher activism has reached Colorado. Teachers from the state’s two largest districts are planning back-to-back walkouts next week to call for more funding for education.
  • New York has exchanged one testing complaint for another. The move to give students unlimited time to complete state tests, meant to reduce student stress, has meant some students spent three to six hours on tests meant to be completed in under 90 minutes.
  • Democrats for Education Reform is under fire in Colorado. Democratic Party delegates booed down the organization’s state chief and voted to call for the organization to strip “Democrats” from its name.

Matt’s research round-up

Indiana charter school students are falling behind, according to a new study. It shows that the state’s charter students are showing less growth on standardized tests than similar students in traditional public schools — a notable finding, since Indiana’s charter sector has been growing rapidly. A big limitation of the research: it doesn’t break down those effects for different student groups or distinguish between students attending virtual schools and brick-and-mortar schools.

What do test scores tell us? A recent analysis cautioned that policymakers should be careful not to put too much stock in test scores when judging school choice programs, since there is often a disconnect between test results and outcomes like high school graduation and college enrollment. Now, Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Institute has kicked off a series of blog posts criticizing the report. One of his concerns is that high school graduation rates are easy to manipulate, making them a poor comparison metric.

One brief comment from me: A number of recent studies have illustrated such a disconnect between high school graduation rates and four-year college enrollment, including in Washington D.C.’s voucher program, Chicago’s and Boston’s charter high schools, and certain Texas charter schools.


DeVos watch

  • In a recent speech and tweet, the education secretary made the case that money won’t improve schools using a graph purporting to show skyrocketing education spending over the last few decades as national test scores remained flat. But this graph — which has been a longtime staple of the education debate — is highly misleading. We point to several reasons why.
  • Last week, DeVos gave an interview to the Daily Signal, the publication of the conservative Heritage Foundation. In it, she continued to promote Florida’s school reform approach — “merit pay for teachers, accountability, A-F grading systems, giving transparency to parents … offering a range of choices to parents from lower incomes” — based on recent gains on the national tests.
  • Remember that Wyoming school district that DeVos famously suggested might need guns to “protect from potential grizzlies?” Well, the schools there didn’t arm teachers at the time, but the district is about to vote on a plan to do so — to fend off would-be school shooters, not bears.
  • DeVos’s public schedule says she is “meeting with members of Congress” today and yesterday, but her press team declined to tell Politico which lawmakers she’s meeting.

Names to note

Paymon Rouhanifard is out as the superintendent of Camden, New Jersey, which is under state control and has adopted tenets of the “portfolio model.” In an interview earlier this week, Rouhanifard said he won’t be a superintendent again any time soon: “It’s a little bit grueling.”

Another portfolio model adherent, Lewis Ferebee, the Indianapolis Public Schools head, is reportedly a finalist for the top job in Los Angeles. The most likely candidate, according to the L.A. Times, is local businessman Austin Beutner. Others on the short list are interim head Vivian Ekchian and former Baltimore Superintendent Andres Alonso.

Antwan Wilson, who was fired as DC schools chancellor for going around the city’s lottery system to get his daughter into a favored high school, was recently brought on as a consultant to Denver Public Schools, where he had previously worked.


What we’re reading

  • Arizona teachers are voting on whether to stage a walkout over school funding. AZ Central
  • Pittsburgh’s new teachers contract, finalized as teachers threatened to strike, is likely to ditch the performance pay system put in place with a Gates Foundation grant. Post-Gazette
  • In states with recent teacher labor uprisings, educators are hoping to channel that energy into results in the November election. Some are even running for office. The Intercept
  • Diane Ravitch recounts the time she visited a Houston junior high school with Barbara Bush, who died yesterday.
  • “At the least, it’s horrible optics. At worst, it appears that North Carolina may have been scammed”: The Charlotte Observer has harsh words for the state’s “Innovative School District.”
  • The case for stand-alone, rather than networked, charter schools. Education Next
  • “I’m an Oklahoma educator who had become complacent about funding cuts. Our students will be different.” Chalkbeat
  • Reed Hastings and Eli Broad donated a combined $8.5 million to a committee set up by the California charter association to help get former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa elected governor. Sacramento Bee
  • “I disapprove of school vouchers. Can I still apply for them?” Yes, responds the New York Times ethicist.

Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.