The record on charter schools

Paul E. Peterson lays out the record of charter schools in a recent op-ed published by the Wall Street Journal.

They respond to popular interest:

As compared to district schools, they have numerous advantages. They are funded by governments, but they operate independently. This means that charters must persuade parents to select them instead of a neighborhood district school. That has happened with such regularity that today there are 350,000 families on charter-school waiting lists, enough to fill over 1,000 additional charter schools.

According to a 2009 Education Next survey, the public approves of steady charter growth. Though a sizeable portion of Americans remain undecided, charter supporters outnumber opponents two to one. Among African Americans, those who favor charters outnumber opponents four to one. Even among public-school teachers, the percentage who favor charters is 37%, while the percentage who oppose them is 31%.

Are these parents simply being hoodwinked? What about performance?

Stanford University’s Caroline Hoxby and Harvard University’s Thomas Kane have conducted randomized experiments that compare students who win a charter lottery with those who applied but were not given a seat. Winners and losers can be assumed to be equally motivated because they both tried to go to a charter school. Ms. Hoxby and Mr. Kane have found that lottery winners subsequently scored considerably higher on math and reading tests than did applicants who remained in district schools.

In another good study, the RAND Corp. found that charter high school graduation rates and college attendance rates were better than regular district school rates by 15 percentage points and eight percentage points respectively.

He also mentions two studies that have less than stellar reviews of charter schools:

Instead of taking seriously these high quality studies, charter critics rely heavily on a report released in 2004 by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). The AFT is hardly a disinterested investigator, and its report makes inappropriate comparisons and pays insufficient attention to the fact that charters are serving an educationally deprived segment of the population. Others base their criticism of charters on a report from an ongoing study by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (Credo), which found that there are more weak charter schools than strong ones. Though this report is superior to AFT’s study, its results are dominated by a large number of students who are in their first year at a charter school and a large number of charter schools that are in their first year of operation.

In other words, the report looks at schools that aren’t representative of charters as an ongoing phenomenon. Kansas, on the other hand, has charter schools in name only. It’s time for the state to give these schools true freedom so that they’re more than the red-headed stepchildren of school districts.

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