OP-ED: The New York Sun, August 18, 2004

No Comparison
Jay P. Greene on the truth about charter schools

By Jay P. Greene

Buried in a new report by the U.S. Department of Education is a comparison claiming to show that charter schools — independently run public schools free from many restrictions — have lower average test scores than regular public schools. A front page New York Times story, put together with the help of America’s second-largest teachers union, recently trumpeted this previously obscure statistic.

But the original report buried the finding for a very good reason. Such a broad comparison between charter schools and regular public schools is sheer nonsense. Unlike regular public schools, many charter schools are specifically designed to serve students with low test scores. Denouncing charter schools for having lower-than-average test scores is like denouncing drug rehab clinics for having more drug users than regular hospitals. A recent Manhattan Institute study found that a large number of charter schools are specifically targeted to educate particular underperforming populations.

Across the nation there are charter schools with the stated purpose of educating groups like pregnant teens, high school dropouts, delinquent youth, or even the broadly defined group of at-risk children. About 13% of New York’s charter schools are targeted to such underperforming populations. So are about 41% of charter schools in Texas and 67% of charter schools in Illinois.

It should come as no surprise that charter schools promoting themselves as special alternatives for low-performing students would have below-average test scores. Such schools simply have no equivalent among regular public schools.

Not that a lack of a valid comparison stopped the American Federation of Teachers, which the Times credits for bringing the Education Department’s charter school comparison to light. The union valiantly tries to get around the pesky problem that many charter schools are specially targeted toward the most difficult students by making comparisons based on race, income, and geography. When results are broken out by these factors, they point out, regular public schools consistently outperform charter schools.

This is a lot like saying you can draw a valid comparison between apples and oranges by comparing apple seeds and orange seeds. Focusing on superficial similarities doesn’t overcome the fundamental differences. Because so many charter schools are specifically targeted to struggling students, a large percentage of their minority and poor students face obstacles greater than students of similar demographics in regular public schools. There’s just no comparison.

An apples-to-apples comparison between charter schools and regular public schools yields far different results. The Manhattan Institute’s analysis compared test-score gains in charter schools serving the general student population to those of their nearest regular public schools. When we make this fairer comparison, charter schools outperform regular public schools by 3 percentile points in math and 2 percentile points in reading for students at the 50th percentile over a one-year period. Charter schools might not be trouncing regular public schools, as some overzealous advocates claim, but when we make fair comparisons charter schools are significantly better.

Many charter schools serve especially disadvantaged populations because it is exactly those students whom education reforms are intended to benefit. We could increase charter school test scores by opening more charter schools that targeted suburban white students instead of at-risk urban youth, but that’s not the point of having charter schools. Unfairly comparing charter schools to regular public schools punishes them for reaching out to the disadvantaged students that the regular public schools have most often failed.

Mr.Greene is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute’s Education Research Office.

Copyright 2002-2004 The New York Sun

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