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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Charter Schools are not saving education

From the San Francisco Chronicle, by David Sirota

Talk K-12 education for more than five minutes, and inevitably, the conversation turns to charter schools - those publicly funded, privately administered institutions that now educate more than 2 million American children. Parents wonder if they are better than the neighborhood public school. Politicians tout them as a silver-bullet solution to the education crisis. Education technology companies promote them for their profit potential.

But are charter schools living up to their original mission as experimental schools pioneering better education outcomes and reducing segregation? That was the vision of the late American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker when he proposed charters a quarter-century ago. According to new data, it looks as if those objectives are not being realized.

In recent years, major studies suggest that, on the whole, charter schools are producing worse educational achievement results than traditional public schools. For example, Stanford University researchers discovered that while 17 percent of charter schools "provide superior education opportunities for their students," a whopping "37 percent deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their students would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools." Likewise, the National Center for Education Statistics found that charter school students performed worse on academic assessments than their peers in traditional public schools.

These numbers might be a bit less alarming if charters were making sure to "not be school(s) where all the advantaged kids or all the white kids or any other group is segregated," as Shanker envisioned. According to a new report from the National Education Policy Center, however, charters "tend to be more racially segregated than traditional public schools" - and in lots of places, they seem to be openly hostile to children who are poor, who are from minority communities or who have special education needs.

A smattering of headlines from across the country tells that story. "Nashville charter schools blasted over racial imbalance," blared a recent headline in the Tennessean. "Colorado charter schools enroll fewer with needs," screamed the Denver Post. "Charter schools enrolling low number of poor students," reported the Miami Herald. The list goes on and on.

Some apologists might claim that, for all their faults, charter schools at least save school districts money. But as evidence suggests from Ohio to New Mexico to Tennessee to Florida to Pennsylvania, charter schools are often more expensive than their counterparts.

Does this all mean that charter schools are inherently bad? Of course not. However, the data do suggest that charter schools are not a systemic answer to America's education crisis. In many cases they distract from the real ills plaguing the education system - ills rooted in economic inequality and anemic school budgets.

Such challenges aren't sexy, simple or politically convenient - but they are the true problems at the heart of our education system. And those problems will continue harming kids unless they are addressed.

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