Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Many Children Left Behind

August 18, 2004
Bad News on the Charter Front

The Bush administration's education program received a devastating setback this week when long-awaited federal data showed that children in charter schools were performing worse on math and reading tests than their counterparts in regular public schools. Among other things, the data casts doubt on a central provision of the No Child Left Behind Act that encourages the states to hand over failing schools to commercial companies and nonprofit community groups that want to run them as charter schools.

Such schools can circumvent some union rules and customary management methods while operating outside the influence of school boards and state authorities.

The new data is consistent with what states like Michigan and California have already learned about the pitfalls of the charter process. There have been individual success stories among the charter schools, but no one seems to have found the key to replicating them on a wider basis. And eliminating the much-criticized educational bureaucracy seems to have created at least as many problems as it has solved.

In addition to poor academic performance, there have been many cases of financial and administrative failures. Some charter schools have been forced to close after being cited for financial irregularities that resulted from a lack of oversight by the states and the local school boards. In some cases, charter schools that boasted about high student achievement have been unwilling to share test data that would support their claims. Others have been accused of generating better scores by screening out the disabled and dumping weaker students back into the public system.

The new data that came to public attention this week was unearthed from a mound of federal reports, where it seemed to have been buried. While government officials denied that they were trying to hide the report, there's no denying that it casts a cloud on the gospel of privatization pushed by the Bush administration.

The report shows that there is nothing magical about the charter system when it comes to rebuilding failing schools. Instead of encouraging the states to set up thousands of unsupervised charter schools, the education secretary, Rod Paige, and his associates should concentrate on the No Child Left Behind provisions that require the states to place a qualified teacher in every classroom and make sure that all of the country's children are being held to the same high standards. That means more oversight and more scrutiny by the states, not less.