Conservative Assault On Public Schools Gets Schooled Again

Isaiah J. Poole

In June 2008, former Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr.—a conservative who is now seeking the Republican nomination to get his old job back—was at an education conference in which he touted charter schools, private institutions that operate in competition to public schools based on school board-approved charters, as a “political winner.”

There’s no disputing that claim; even so-called Socialist-In-Chief Barack Obama knows better than to diss charter schools. But do these institutions actually educate children better than public schools? More often than not, they don’t.

The New York Times on Sunday highlighted an up-to-now little discussed report by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University on how charter schools, beloved darlings of the right, stack up against public schools. The bottom line, based on the center’s research (emphasis mine):

The study reveals that a decent fraction of charter schools, 17 percent, provide superior education opportunities for their students. Nearly half of the charter schools nationwide have results that are no different from the local public school options and over a third, 37 percent, deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their student would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools.

This study is just the latest in a series of studies that should have long ago discredited the conservative drumbeat that public schools are inherently flawed and private schools are more deserving of funding and administrative latitude. Bill Scher and I wrote about this fallacy back in 2006, only that time it was not based on a study from a university but from the Bush administration’s Department of Education. That study came to a remarkably similar conclusion about charter schools: “After adjusting for student characteristics, charter school mean scores in reading and mathematics were lower, on average, than those for public noncharter schools.”

The Stanford study does offer one significant positive note for charter schools: “Charter schools are found to have better academic growth results for students in poverty” than do public schools for similar students, and “English Language Learners realize significantly better learning gains in charter schools” than they do in public schools.

But it is worth asking if the charter schools that are doing a demonstrably better job in educating poor or English-as-a-second-language students are getting resources that are being denied the public schools. If this difference is largely a matter of charter schools being able to tap into private sources of funding while public schools in 29 states and the District of Columbia are going through major cuts as a result of the recession, then what we should be doing is pushing to offset at least some of these budget cuts through such measures as the Local Jobs for America Act, a House bill that would among other things help keep teachers employed, or an exclusively school-focused bill in the Senate.

This issue, though, goes beyond on what we spend our education dollars to what we fundamentally believe about education and in whose hands education belongs. That issue is tackled in a post on Open Left that not only chronicles several scandals in the charter school movement that rival the horror stories dredged up by public school opponents, but also raises the fundamental problem of public accountability:

The supposed advantage of charter schools— that they are not governed by the local education governing agency—is actually what makes them prone to corruption. With very few checks and balances—sometimes none if the chartering agency runs the whole show—charters can determine student populations served, personnel policies, salaries, and other matters, all without the input of the local community. … The reality in much of education policy making today is that more and more decisions governing public schools are being made without regard to the will of the public.

Conservative ideology, capitalizing on the very real desire of parents to get the best education possible for their children, has resulted in millions of children being funneled into an education system that is delivering inferior results and is increasingly less accountable to the communities that have a shared interest in the educational quality of the school system.

There are some great charter schools, and we should praise and be informed by their successes. But let’s stop the blanket public school-bashing and let’s stop painting the charter school movement with a halo that it does not deserve.

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