A Weekly Bulletin of News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
Volume 9, Number 2. January 15, 2009.

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This week on The Education Gadfly Show Podcast: It's pronounced "Arnie"

Guest Editorial, Robin Lake

Recommended Readings

Flypaper's Finest

The Education Gadfly Show Podcast

Short Reviews

From Our Readers


About Us

Guest Editorial, Robin Lake

Did Bush hurt the charter movement by trying to help it?
It's ironic. The Bush administration, a strong proponent of school choice, may have done more harm than good in its quest to help the charter school movement. At least, the Bush administration failed to meaningfully move the charter sector forward beyond the improvements made under President Clinton. How could that be?

George W. Bush came into office at a time when the charter movement was growing at its fastest pace and it was politically correct for Democrats and even some teacher unions to support charter schools. Fast forward eight years. Although the charter movement continues slowly to grow, new school growth is heavily concentrated in a few states, most people still know little or nothing about what a charter school is, and their politics are divisive in most places beyond the Beltway.

Certainly the outgoing administration supported school choice. Bush's Department of Education quickly sprouted an Office of Innovation and Improvement, whose officials applauded charters and even expanded funding opportunities for them.

Indeed, many Bush policies were even helpful. NCLB's intense focus on performance and accountability shone needed light on some of the worst charters and provoked action where school districts, authorizers and other oversight bodies had been negligent.

Yet the administration also gave its blessing to policies that conflict with the charter concept. Subjecting charters to the Highly Qualified Teachers (HQT) provision of NCLB, for instance, was an inappropriate regulatory requirement for schools that are supposed to be free to innovate--in the personnel domain among others--in exchange for results. This was a congressional requirement, but Bush's team should have fought it or found a regulatory path around it. A critical task for allies of charter schooling is to protect this innovative sector from unnecessary re-regulation.

But the larger problem came from actions intended to be charter friendly. A key mis-step, again committed by Congress but allowed, and even promoted, by Bush, was encouraging school districts to "restructure" low-performing schools by converting them into charters, i.e. as a kind of punishment. Though seldom used in practice, this provision of NCLB sent a subtle but powerful message. Charters, which in most states had been started by anti-testing, progressive educators under bi-partisan support, could now be effectively linked to a broader conservative agenda: testing, privatization, and an anti-public school attitude.

Such messaging, though likely unintended, was a teacher union's dream come true. In Washington State, where I live, charter opponents used associations with privatization and testing effectively in a 2004 public referendum to recall a bi-partisan charter law. Perhaps these tactics would have been tried regardless, but high profile GOP support for charters, from the Bush White House no less, fed that story line--and gave it traction. In states like Washington, it takes careful coalition–building and broad-based support from unlikely bedfellows to move forward controversial issues. In fact, partisanship is a huge handicap for charters in most purple and blue states.

Despite these advertent and inadvertent effects, it would be too easy--and misleading--to lay all blame for the charter movement's woes at the foot of an outgoing and unpopular administration. Charters also suffered from much bad press during the last eight years, much of it their own doing. A 2004 New York Times article announcing poor charter performance on a national test was extremely damaging (despite dubious credibility of the reported study). Charter advocates themselves can also be blamed for being late to admit that too many of their schools indeed suffered from weak or uneven performance in too many states.

Still and all, Bush's support for charters backfired in many ways. By using the bully pulpit to promote the idea of choice rather than to promote policies that support high quality choices, and by making chartering an NCLB punishment rather than promoting it as an opportunity for partnership, the Administration's support for charters became a liability.

With enthusiastic words of support for charters already coming from the President-elect Obama and Secretary-designate Arne Duncan, bipartisanship in the charter sector is on the upswing once again, at least rhetorically. Hopefully, new leadership at the Department of Education will follow up with federal policies that promote high quality charter growth and greater linkages between charters and other school reform efforts. More than anything, however, Democrats can best help this sector over the next few years by making it clear that support for charter schools does not, and should not, fall along party lines.

By Robin Lake
Robin Lake is executive director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education's National Charter School Research Project ( and a senior fellow at Education Sector. She edits the annual report "Hopes, Fears, and Reality: A Balanced Look at American Charter Schools."

Recommended Readings

Voc not a joke
Is there any education miracle that Massachusetts didn't perform over the past ten years? Here's another one: reinventing vocational education, public schools' oft forgotten and woefully downtrodden wayward cousin. But this ain't your grandpa's voc ed. Prodded by a slew of reforms, including the Bay State's high school graduation test and pressure from No Child Left Behind, Massachusetts's voc schools have risen to the challenge. "We do very well because of ed reform," explained Rogerio Ramos, principal of Diman Regional Vocational High School, where 60 percent of students typically go to college. Once known as schools for dummies, Massachusetts' voc schools have given a whole new meaning to interdisciplinary learning. Instead of the soggy drivel this phrase usually implies, the interdisciplinary part has meant bolstering the traditional technical-vocational curriculum with more reading, writing, math, and other core content. In other words, using opportunities like shop class to raise the bar, rather than bend it.

"Massachusetts' impressively successful vocational schools," by Julia Steiny, The Providence Journal, January 11, 2009

No news is good news
Arne Duncan's Senate confirmation hearing this week was by all accounts a smashing success--if you define "success" as making no waves, upsetting no constituents, and sending no signals about the Obama Administration's intentions in the education sphere. Nor was it a tea party attended only by Senate Democrats; quondam-Secretary-of-Education Lamar Alexander told Duncan that he was Obama's "best" cabinet pick. (Take that, Hillary!) Duncan was happy to play along, with risky statements such as "never before has being smart been so cool" and "we must build upon what works and we must stop doing what doesn't work." Eventually Duncan and his boss are going to have to make decisions that will frustrate either the establishment or reform wings of the Democratic Party, but don't expect that day to come anytime soon.

"Nothing but Praise for Duncan in Senate Hearing," by Alyson Klein, Education Week, January 13, 2009

"Duncan: Smart is Cooler than Ever," by Sam Dillon, The Caucus (The New York Times Political Blog), January 13, 2009

A bailout for private schools?
Don't bank on it, but public schools aren't the only ones feeling the pinch from our current economic crisis. Budget woes have also seen private school enrollments drop and financial aid costs rise. "We just couldn't keep writing the check," explains San Francisco parent Cynthia Hogan. "It was killing us." With rising college tuition looming just beyond high school graduation, parents are looking into other options. According to data from the Department of Education (impressively dug up by The Associated Press), private school enrollment has been dropping in the aftermath of recessions for decades; this year, however, the schools may be particularly hard hit. Already it looks like enrollment is down 120,000 students nationally (out of six million kids in non-public education). Unfortunately, Catholic schools, long teetering on the edge of financial disaster, may be struck the hardest, serving, as they do, many working and middle class families. If you're looking for another reason to pray for a speedy economic recovery, may we suggest you add this one to the list?

"Private schools pinched as aid requests rise," by Christine Amario and Libby Quaid, The Associated Press, January 12, 2009

Competitive crunch
It should come as no surprise that the economy has become the excuse de jour for all sorts of bad policy. It should also come as no surprise that charter school detractors are going after these alternative models yet again (see here, here, and here, too). The latest attacks come from districts in Utah and Massachusetts where anti-charter forces want moratoria on new schools. The claim? That charters are draining already-scarce district resources and districts shouldn't be financially responsible for schools they don't oversee. The inconvenient truth? Districts are being pressed by charter competition. The financial officer for one Utah district claims that districts have innocent intentions: "It's time we examine whether charter schools have lived up to their promise. I think there's a growing realization that they're more expensive to run than public schools," she explains. More expensive? Clearly she never read Fordham's groundbreaking analysis of charter school funding, which found that charters receive about 80 cents on the dollar compared to their traditional public school counterparts. Let's call this what it is: just another attempt to strangle charter schools in their crib.

"Districts Lobby to Halt New Charter Schools," by Kirsten Stewart, Salt Lake Tribune, January 8, 2008

"Raise the Cap on Charters," Boston Globe, January 10, 2008

Purrrrrfectly crazy
Fishing enthusiasts beware. No longer will you find salmon, trout, catfish, or your other favorite scaly friend at the end of your line. If People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have their way, you'll be reeling in a sea kitten. What's a sea kitten, you ask? It's PETA's new name for fish. That's right, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals would like you start calling fish "sea kittens." Why? "We're hoping that by calling fish 'sea kittens,' compassionate people who would never hurt a dog or a cat will realize that fish feel pain and fear just like furry and winged animals do," explained the group in a letter to the principal of Whitefish High School in Montana, Ken Paulson. But it gets better. The letter was intended to convince Paulson that Whitefish High should change its name to Sea Kitten High. No, we did not make that up. (Gadfly's imagination has limits.) "Schools strive for achievements in academics and sports," explained PETA campaign coordinator Ashley Byrne, "so why not add compassion to the list?" Whitefish Superintendent Jerry House was intrigued; perhaps, he mused, last year's National Federation of Fly-Fishers conference held in Whitefish would transform into a conference for the National Federation of Sea Kittens. (Again, not kidding.) If only such attention were paid to student learning.

"PETA seeks to rename high school Sea Kitten," by Michael Jamison, The Missoulian, January 8, 2009

Flypaper's Finest
A weekly selection of the best offerings from Flypaper, Fordham's blog.

The Obama education strategy: Hire the reformers, bail out the states, buy off the unions, Mike Petrilli
That's what it's starting to look like, at least if the rumors swirling around Washington have any merit. While I strongly doubt that Arne Duncan will put Wendy Kopp, Jon Schnur, and Andy Rotherham in his 1, 2, and 3 spots, it's conceivable that the reform crowd will win the "personnel is policy" game (just not by a landslide). But even more interesting is the news that the "stimulus" package will include an $80 billion fund for education—on top of the $100 billion or so of state bailout funds that will find their way to local school coffers. …Read it here.

Voinovich, the last of his breed, Mike Lafferty
When U.S. Senator George Voinovich retires at the end of his current term in 2010 it will signal the end of progressive Republican education reform in Ohio. Voinovich announced today that he will not seek reelection to a third term as Ohio's senior Senator. His public service goes back to 1967 when he was elected to the Ohio House. Voinovich's stellar reputation as a school reformer comes honestly…Read it here.

The Education Gadfly Show Podcast

It's pronounced "Arnie"
We're back! This week, Mike and Rick discuss unionized charter schools, bailing out state education funds, and Bush's education legacy. Then Amber tells us about a new study of Boston charter schools and Rate That Reform gets fishy. Click here to listen through our website and peruse past editions. To download the show as an mp3 to your computer, click here (no iPod required--this link will play through any music software on your computer, including Windows Media Player or RealPlayer).

Short Reviews

National Assessment of Adult Literacy: Indirect County and State Estimates of the Percentage of Adults at the Lowest Literacy Level for 1992 and 2003
L. Mohadjer, G. Kalton, T. Krenzke, B. Liu, W. Van de Kerck, L. Li, D. Sherman, J. Dillman, J. Rao
National Center for Education Statistics
January 2009

This report combines the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) and the 1999 National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) to create a database of indirect estimates on the number of adults who lack "basic prose literacy skills" (BPLS) on the state and county level. NAAL and NALS each surveyed about 20,000 adults over the age of 16. Adults who lack these skills either can't read or understand any written English or can only locate basic information in short prose but nothing more. What does that mean? As USA Today put it, these adults would find it difficult "to read anything more challenging than a children's book or to understand a medicine's side effects listed on a pill bottle." An estimated 32 million fall into this category--or 1 in 7 adults. And this population is growing at an alarming rate. Between 1992 and 2003, the American population grew by 23 million; 3.6 million of those--16 percent--were lacking BPLS. While the report itself is mostly mind-numbing technical background, it is accompanied by a worthwhile and easy to use website that allows viewers to compare literacy rates by state and county.

By Suzannah Herrmann

Informing the Debate: Comparing Boston's Charter, Pilot, and Traditional Schools
A. Abdulkadiroglu, J. Angrist, S. Cohodes, S. Dynarski, J. Fullerton, T. Kane, P. Pathak
The Boston Foundation
January 2009

This report evaluates Massachusetts's several types of school options: traditional public schools, charter schools, and pilot schools. (For those who may be unfamiliar with the last of these, pilot schools were born as the Boston Public Schools' (BPS) and Boston Teachers' Union's (BTU) 1995 response to charter schools; described by the authors as a "middle ground," they have curricular, staffing, and scheduling autonomy but retain a collectively bargained pay scale and seniority rights.) The report combines two parallel studies. First, analysts used Massachusetts state test data to track individual student progress over time and by school. This piece included all schools in the Bay State and controlled for observable characteristics (e.g. race, English language proficiency etc.) but not for such intangibles as student motivation. Second, analysts evaluated school lotteries to compare students who did and did not receive spots in charter and pilot schools; this portion sought to control for both observable and unobservable student characteristics but only evaluated schools and years where there were significantly more applicants than open spots and where lottery records were complete. The findings are telling: the authors found "large positive effects" on student achievement for charter schools, but none for pilot schools, when both kinds of choice-schools were compared with traditional public schools. In fact, pilot school students may actually lose ground in some areas compared to BPS students, although these findings were not statistically strong. The authors note that, taken in isolation, each portion of the study's design has challenges: data may be "potentially affected by selection bias"--e.g. charter and pilot schools might skim the best students--and not all pilot schools participate in lotteries. Nonetheless, this holistic research design is worth maintaining--and reusing--as Massachusetts and other states continue to expand school choice options. You can find the full study and data analysis here.

By Christina Hentges

From Our Readers

Stimulus critique unstimulating
To the editor:

To read last week's editorial offering, "Why Obama's stimulus plan may retard education reform" (January 9, 2009), was to be catapulted from vigorous head-nodding to equally vigorous finger-wagging in a span of but several paragraphs. We begin our sail on placid seas of sense ("Education, then, cries out for a good belt-tightening") but are soon broadsided by unwelcome, wastrel winds ("For starters, make the summers of 2009 and 2010 into 'Summers of Learning.' Invest billions to keep schools open from June to August across the land."). I understand that the editorial's authors were trying to make a bad situation--i.e., government's squandering of hundreds of billions--less so, but along the way they ceded the high ground on K-12 spending; swallowed stories about that mythological creature, the "one-time investment" in education; and proffered suggestions that, frankly, sound as if they were scribbled out on the Metro ride to work (Public school "Summers of Learning"? We've enough problems with fall, winter, and spring.). Neal McCloskey, of the Cato Institute, raised similar concerns last week, which Mike Petrilli dismissed on the Flypaper blog as the musings of "loopy libertarians." I wouldn't call McCloskey's anxieties the exclusive property of libertarians; they are--at least, should be--worrying for all conservatives and other sensible folks. And if the past is any guide, such concerns certainly are not loopy.

Liam Julian
Managing Editor
Policy Review


AEI to consider President Bush's education legacy
To discuss Frederick M. Hess and Michael J. Petrilli's forthcoming article "Left at the Altar" (it's a pun, get it?), AEI will host an event on February 5, 2009 from 1:00-2:30 pm. Joined by an impressive panel of speakers--Bill Evers (the Bush administration's assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development), Dianne Piché (executive director of the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights) and Andy Rotherham (codirector of Education Sector)--the topic of the day is how the Bush Administration may have sacrificed its conservative principles in the process of compromising with liberal education advocates to narrow the achievement gap. You can find more information and RSVP here.

Job opening in Illinois (no, not that one!)
Advance Illinois, a new statewide education advocacy organization based in Chicago, is looking for a Policy Director. AI seeks to build broad public and policymaker support for ambitious, comprehensive reform of Illinois' state-level education policies. The Director will be charged with developing a sweeping, innovative blueprint for state policy reform. This is a fantastic position for someone yearning to think big, have a significant impact on state level policy, and join a terrific team of colleagues. For more information, including a formal position description, please contact Monisha Lozier at [email protected].

Flypaper sticks more ideas
In case you hadn't noticed, the Fordham Ohio team has started contributing to the Institute's blog, Flypaper. They've already added some stellar content and are sure to continue doing so in the future. (See Flypaper's Finest above for one such contribution by Ohio Gadfly Editor Mike Lafferty.) And if that's not enough to convince you, Flypaper was a finalist in the Weblog Best Education Blog Awards--and came in fifth overall. Gadfly is beaming like a proud parent.

Thomas seeks friends
Once you're friendly with Flypaper, hop on over to Facebook, where Thomas B. Fordham is keen to become your friend. He likes to use his minifeed to tell you about new Education Gadflies, cool events, and new reports. You can also become a fan of the Education Gadfly Show Podcast--all you need to know about education news in under 20 delightful minutes. Just search for our fan page or find it here.

About Us
The Education Gadfly is published weekly (ordinarily on Thursdays), with occasional breaks, by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Regular contributors include Amy Fagan, Chester E. Finn, Jr., Christina Hentges, Ben Hoffman, Hannah Miller, Eric Osberg, Stafford Palmieri, Michael J. Petrilli, Laura Elizabeth Pohl, Amber Winkler, and Yusi Zheng. Have something to say? Email us at [email protected]. Would you like to be spared from the Gadfly? Email [email protected] with "unsubscribe gadfly" in the text of your message. You are welcome to forward Gadfly to others, and from our website you can also email individual articles. If you have been forwarded a copy of Gadfly and would like to subscribe, you may either email [email protected] with "subscribe gadfly" in the text of the message or sign up through our website, To read archived issues or obtain other reviews of reports and books, go to and click on the Education Gadfly link.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute is a nonprofit organization that conducts research, issues publications, and directs action projects in elementary/secondary education reform at the national level and in Ohio, with a special emphasis on our hometown of Dayton. (For Ohio news, check out our Ohio Education Gadfly, published bi-weekly, ordinarily on Wednesdays.)The Institute is neither connected with nor sponsored by Fordham University.