Rain On The Charter School Parade
August 23, 2006 - 1:36pm ET
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The charter school evangelists, including their high priests in the Bush administration, keep getting doused by the cold rain of reality. The latest report from the Department of Education’s own National Center for Education Statistics puts a further dent in the Bush administration’s attempt to sell charter schools as a panacea for the woes of public education.
It says, in short, that charter schools, as a whole, are not better than the public schools they compete against and often drain resources from. In fact, their students are often in worse shape academically than their public school counterparts.
The administration’s strategy, of course, was to encourage the creation of charter schools—as well as the use of private school vouchers—as an alternative to struggling public schools. The conservative mantra was that competition would give parents options for giving their children the best education and, ultimately, encourage public schools to get better.
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings boasted in a USA Today op-ed that “our administration has invested hundreds of millions of dollars” in alternatives to public school education, and that one result is that “today there are more than 3,600 charter schools, compared with 2,000 five years ago.”
What the nation is getting for those hundreds of millions of dollars is—not much. The executive summary concludes, “After adjusting for student characteristics, charter school mean scores in reading and mathematics were lower, on average, than those for public noncharter schools.”
Even considering the caveats—the report is based on an observational study, there are wild variations from school to school, the fact that charter school populations are parent-selected while public school populations generally are not—the report is damning when juxtaposed against the fervor with which charter schools and the other “school choice” programs are sold.
It is also notable that the report is just the latest in a series of reports that should give policy advocates of school choice pause. The National Alliance for Public School Charters in July 2005 examined a series of charter school studies; its report acknowledged that “the results are mixed” and that the assessments that could be made overall based on the studies are “far from conclusive.”
The epicenter of the charter school movement happens to be Washington, where there are 51 such schools, serving about 30 percent of the city’s total school enrollment. Conservatives have found considerable support for diverting resources into the schools among low-income parents frustrated with the continuing problems of the city’s public schools. But in the wake of a series of scandals, incidents of mismanagement and test results that show students in some charter schools underperforming their public school peers, the city’s highly regarded school superintendent, Clifford Janey, has called for a moratorium on the establishment of new charter schools until better quality controls are in place.
"This is not a push back against charter schools. It's rather reclaiming the purpose of public education to be one of quality. It would be a mistake to continue to grow without having a handle on quality," he said.
Even Spellings referred to charter schools as “laboratories” in a May 2005 statement. Laboratories produce great successes and spectacular failures, and that is no less true for charter schools. There are a host of reasons why progressives should be wary of the push by conservatives to funnel increasing numbers of children out of public schools into educational cul-de-sacs—not the least of which is the risk to a child’s future of an experiment gone wrong. Instead of blindly following the zealots who have found in charter schools a new thin veil for their resentment against public education, it is better to keep federal and local school policies focused on what we know works: good teachers; involved parents; children who are adequately fed, clothed and housed; well-equipped schools and a supportive community.
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