OP-ED: The Akron Beacon JournaL, August 23, 2004

Union Study of Charter Schools Fails in Accuracy


School has not yet started for most of the nation's children, yet the American Federation of Teachers sent home a failing report card this week to nearly 800,000 of the country's lowest-income and most challenged students.

Newspapers such as the New York Times reported the AFT's claims that national test data, called the National Assessment of Educational Progress, proves that students in charter schools “lag behind” students in traditional public schools.

This statement is baseless. More than 10 years of comprehensive research demonstrates that charter schools produce strong student achievement, especially among minority and at-risk students. These students have worked hard to overcome significant challenges and they deserve to be acknowledged for their success.

Instead, these students are caught in the middle of a political battle. Charter opponents are threatened by the growth of independent public schools that offer a promise of performance, are held to account by contract and open to parents by choice. They have deliberately skewed valuable national data to suit their cause.

For example, the NAEP data reveal that charter fourth-graders in California and Arizona, representing fully a third of all charter schools, do better than their traditional public school counterparts in reading performance. And the differences in the other states are miniscule, at best. These facts were not front-and-center in AFT news reports. Also missing in the report was the fact that charter schools serve more poor, at-risk and minority students than traditional public schools.

The most important test data for all public schools is that used by states to measure student achievement, and in the case of charter schools, decide whether they may continue to operate. Such data reveal that in the core states examined in the NAEP report, and in other states, charter schools are succeeding and, in most cases, outpacing the competition.

Consider Michigan, where students in charter schools showed greater gains in last year's Michigan Educational Assessment Program in all but one of 10 grades and subjects. Massachusetts students are meeting the same high standards, with more than 60 percent of urban charters outperforming their traditional counterparts.

A study of 60,000 Arizona charter students reveals that the longer a student is in a charter school, the better he or she achieves. The University of Wisconsin at Madison found that fourth- and eighth-graders in its state's charter schools are also outscoring public school students.

This achievement is particularly significant given the huge number of children whose families move them to charters because they were unsuccessful in public schools. The nation's report card on reading paints a dismal picture, with only 31 percent of fourth-graders able to read proficiently. In Washington, D.C., less than 10 percent of children are proficient in reading; most of its charter schools are doing considerably better than that.

That being said, there are indeed charter schools in this country that do not make the grade, sometimes because of financial mismanagement or facilities challenges, and every once in a while, due to poor student achievement. But unlike traditional schools, poor-performing charter schools must shut their doors. And that's how it should be.

The pioneers of charter schools envisioned schools accountable to their students, their parents and their communities. About 9 percent of the almost 4,000 schools that have opened in the past decade have closed down, mostly for financial reasons. Less than 5 percent of those schools closed due to poor student achievement.

Compare that to the 11 percent of traditional public schools that the U.S. Department of Education labeled “in need of improvement.” These schools were not closed, and most of their students remain struggling in classrooms today.

For many students, traditional public schools are an ideal setting. For others, charter schools provide a well-suited alternative.

Ultimately, it is up to each parent to decide. And it is up to us to ensure that those parents have the information—all of the information—they need to make those important decisions. Let's start the new school year with an open mind, a blank slate and a commitment to use real data when making judgments about schools.

Jeanne Allen is founder and president of the Center for Education Reform, a 10-year-old organization that lobbies on behalf of charter schools and vouchers.

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