EDITORIAL: The Tacoma News Tribune, August 22, 2004

AFT's Statistical Attack on Charter Schools Proves Exactly Nothing

Mark Twain said it best: There are lies, damn lies, and statistics. The latest conscription of educational statistics in the war against charter schools is a case in point.

The front page of The New York Times last Tuesday trumpeted a cover-up: The U.S. Department of Education had "buried in mountains of data" a set of statistics that "deals a blow" to charter schools, which are self-governing, deregulated public schools. (The governance arrangements and extent of deregulation differ from state to state.)

The story was based on a report from the American Federation of Teachers, which had mined the statistics in question from the department's 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

As packaged by the AFT, the numbers showed that fourth- and eighth-graders in charter schools were performing about half a year behind students in other public schools. A disparity existed even with an apples-and-apples comparison between poor, urban students in charter and regular public schools.

A story like that could indeed deal a blow to the charter movement, especially in Washington state right now. This year's Legislature approved a modest charter measure that would authorize the creation of 45 of these schools over the next six years.

But like the AFT, the Washington Education Association is hostile to charter schools; it moved heaven and earth to defeat two charter initiatives in this state and has succeeded in putting a referendum on the November ballot that would repeal the latest charter legislation.

The problem with the AFT's new study lies in the context it neglected to provide and the data it chose to emphasize.

Charter opponents used to claim, without much in the way of evidence, that these schools would harm conventional public schools by "cherry-picking" white, high-achieving students and leaving poor, struggling minority students behind.

Precisely the opposite is true. Nationwide, charter schools educate more than their share of ethnic minorities. And many of their students were having serious difficulties in their old schools—that's why their parents didn't leave them in those schools.

When the NAEP numbers are controlled for levels of enrollment of African-American and Latino students, the performance disparity between charter and traditional public schools largely disappears. Even so, simple snap-shot performance comparisons don't address the crucial question of how students who were already behind their peers are faring in charter schools.

That question can only be answered with "gain" studies that compare individual students' improvement from year to year. The charter school movement is still young, and it's going to take time to get a true nationwide cross-comparison.

There's no reason to believe charter schools in general are inherently better—or worse—than their conventional counter-parts. They are simply different. Both kinds of schools can fail; both can be successful.

But charter schools are one of a variety of educational innovations that might be the answer for certain kinds of students. Washington's limited experiment with charters certainly shouldn't be condemned on the basis of a flawed and self-serving report.

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