Charter School Nonsense
Wall Street Journal
August 28, 2006; Page A12

The Bush administration's desire to enlighten parents and taxpayers about alternatives to failing public schools is admirable. But it'll have to do better than the misleading report issued last week by the federal Department of Education, which purports to show that charter schools trail traditional public schools in student achievement.

The study used 2003 test-score data from the National Assessment for Education Progress (NAEP) to determine that fourth-graders attending regular public schools scored 4.2 points higher in reading, and 4.7 points higher in math, than their counterparts in charter schools, which are also public schools but operate independently and without many of the union and bureaucratic rules. The study claims to have taken family income into consideration, and that's important because a large number of charter schools cater to mostly low-income students.

But the use of federal-lunch program participation as a poverty indicator is problematic and likely skewed the results. According to the Center for Education Reform, a school choice advocacy group, as many as 1-in-4 charters nationwide would qualify for free- and reduced-lunch programs but don't take advantage of them. Cost and bureaucratic red tape are two primary reasons.

For example, to participate in a federal lunch program, a school must hire certified food service workers. Many charters operating on tight budgets choose to use parents or volunteers in the cafeteria and steer their limited resources into the classroom. By relying on a flawed proxy for poverty, the government's methodology penalizes this sort of efficiency.

It's also worth pointing out how little can be properly extrapolated about the quality of charter schools from a 2003 "snapshot" of fourth-grade reading and math scores. The study tells us nothing about the students' prior or subsequent academic record. Nor do we know how long the school had been open at the time or whether it's still in operation today.

Teachers unions and others averse to school choice want to use the study's results to indict the entire charter model. But they'd never dream of using such a crude approach to assess the effectiveness of traditional public schools. The NAEP data are merely a measure of current student performance. The only way to measure school effectiveness is through longitudinal studies that compare the same students over time.

"You compare students year to year in certain subjects to find out whether they're learning and how much of it can be attributed to the school," says Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform. "This national study doesn't do that." This federal picture is incomplete, in part, because the feds only began including charter schools in NAEP data three years ago. But states have been measuring performance trends for much longer. And the value-added effects of charter schools are clear.

Studies in California, New York, Massachusetts, Florida and elsewhere have repeatedly shown charter school students outperforming their counterparts in traditional public schools -- sometimes dramatically. In Michigan in 2004, 46% of black eighth-graders in charter schools passed the state math assessment test, compared with just 21% of black eighth-graders statewide.

Writing in the New York Post last week, Peter Murphy of the New York Charter Schools Association said a state report issued this summer found that "in 2005, a majority of charter schools had a higher percentage of students passing the state exams in English language arts and mathematics at the elementary and middle school levels" than did their respective school districts.

All charters aren't successful, but the bad ones tend to close in due course, which is a good thing and more than can be said for failing traditional public schools. As for the rest, they are providing a fast-growing option for underprivileged children. This irks unions, school boards and others with a vested interest in a public school monopoly that's failing to educate millions of kids. But it doesn't mean the Bush administration has to give its political opponents fodder in the form of shoddy, oversold research on school performance.


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