Thursday, August 24, 2006

Charter schools fail to top their public peers

Charter schools fail to top their public peers
By Greg Toppo, USA TODAY

Independently run, publicly financed charter schools perform no better than comparable public schools, long-awaited federal data suggested Tuesday.

Long considered a ticket out for students in poor public schools, charter schools have proliferated nationwide and are among reforms favored by the Bush administration. In Washington, D.C., one in four students attends one.

But Tuesday's report, which for the first time compares the performance of students in charters with that of public school peers in similar neighborhoods, finds that charter school students lag slightly.

The data show, for instance, that charter school students in 2003 were several points behind their counterparts in both reading and math in fourth and eighth grades. Standardized math scores in urban charters also lagged, but reading scores were comparable.

The results prompted Mark Schneider, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, to comment that the charter school movement is "not doing harm."

Edward McElroy, president of the American Federation of Teachers, along with other charter school critics, says the report "provides further evidence against unchecked expansion of the charter school experiment."

Proponents say the study relies on flawed 2003 data. But raw 2005 data, posted on the education statistics center's website, show similar results.

Schneider says the report's use is limited — for one thing, it won't help parents choose a school.

"What does this report say to a parent?" he says. "Not much, quite frankly."

Charter schools receive taxpayer money but operate independently of school district rules and teachers' union contracts. Proposed in 1988 by the federation's then-president, Albert Shanker, charter schools first appeared in 1992. Today there are more than 3,600 serving more than 1 million students — about 2% of all students, according to the Center for Education Reform, a charter advocacy group.

The center's president, Jeanne Allen, says the report underestimates how many charter school students are poor. The center says 42% qualify for federal lunch subsidies, but her group's 2005 survey found that 63% qualify.

U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings says many charter schools are relatively new and need more time to show improvement. "I have visited high-performing charter schools all around the country, and I have seen how they take the most at-risk students and refuse to give up on them," she says.

President Bush plans to visit a charter school Monday in New Orleans, where federal aid has prompted dozens of Katrina-affected schools to reopen as charter schools, turning the city into a petri dish for the charter movement.