Washington News

The Seattle Times
August 18, 2004

Charter-School Study Sparks Debate


By SANJAY BHATT, Seattle Times staff reporter

Charter-school opponents and supporters are both claiming the high ground after a controversial report by the American Federation of Teachers that said students at charter schools fare worse than students at traditional public schools.

The federation's review of the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called "the nation's report card," found that charter-school students' average scores were lower in math and reading in the fourth and eighth grades than the nationwide public-school averages.

After The New York Times highlighted the report on its front page Tuesday, three Harvard researchers picked it apart on yesterday's Wall Street Journal opinion page.

The continued debate over charter schools, which are now permitted in 40 states and the District of Columbia, has political overtones. Charter schools are part of President Bush's education-reform policies, and in November, Washington state voters will approve or reject the Legislature's authorization of a limited number of charter schools.

Charter schools are public schools, paid for with tax dollars but run by private organizations and freed from many of the rules governing public schools. They have more freedom to hire and fire staff members, increase the length of the school day or week and spend their budgets as they see fit.

Referendum 55 marks the third time charter-school measures have appeared on this state's ballot; voters have rejected charter-school initiatives twice.

Unions like the American Federation of Teachers, along with the larger National Education Association, have opposed charter schools.

"Charter schools were sold to the states on the idea that they could almost automatically make things better," said Sandra Schroeder, president of the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers and a national vice president of the union. "That's not happening."

"It is no surprise to us that charter schools do not perform better than public schools," she said Tuesday. "What is alarming, however, is that our own government proves it, and they are not releasing these facts."

The government plans to release an analysis of the scores of the National Assessment of Educational Progress in December, after the election, and the federation questions that timing.

Charter-school supporters and some academics dispute the federation's interpretation of the test scores, saying it's impossible to reach a conclusion about the performance of charter schools from a single year.

"It was one of the most unsophisticated, low-level analyses I've ever seen," said Mary Beth Celio, a statistician at the University of Washington's Center on Reinventing Public Education.

Charter-school opponents say they fear the schools will drain public resources and benefit only wealthy children. But the study says charter schools are enrolling students who have not done well in public schools and are often years behind. Celio said they would be expected to score lower on tests than their public-school peers.

"All they can say is that charter schools do not skim in any sense of the word. The students they take in are the poorest, most educationally vulnerable kids in the country," she said.

Jim Spady, longtime supporter of charter schools, said the federation study doesn't acknowledge that if charter schools don't meet the goals of their charters, they can be closed.

Charter schools in this state, if approved, would have five years to prove that they perform at least as well as public schools, Spady said. If they didn't pass that test, "then the school is closed and all the adults that work there will lose their jobs. That's real accountability, real consequences. That's a much higher level of accountability than you have in the traditional public schools."

The late Al Shanker, the legendary former president of the American Federation of Teachers, encouraged the charter-school movement, but Schroeder said the union began to change its thinking more than a year ago as more studies were published. She said the union's opposition is "based upon a clear preponderance of evidence that is not mitigated by the fact that there are a few good charter schools."

Responding to criticism of the federation study, she said, "it's ironic that people would be defending charter schools for not doing a better job with at-risk children, because public schools have been attacked for not doing a better job with them."

Federal Way Superintendent Tom Murphy, whose School Board passed a resolution in favor of charter-school legislation, said anyone applying to start a charter-school would have to show that their schools elsewhere had performed better than traditional public schools.

But once charter schools have opened, state officials have been reluctant to shut poor performers down, said David Marshak, a Seattle University professor.

Marshak said the federation study has limited value. A more meaningful analysis would have evaluated charter-school performance, compared to public-school performance, within each state. It's possible charter schools work in some states but not in others, he said.

"My position about charter schools is I think it's an interesting idea, and I think unfortunately it's been caught up in the ideological debate between left and right and has been distorted in the battle," Marshak said.

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