Education Opinion

Questioning Charter School Superiority

By Walt Gardner — October 19, 2016 3 min read
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Although the latest controversy about charter schools is over the NAACP’s vote on a moratorium on their expansion, the issue goes beyond any one organization’s position (“The NAACP’s Disgrace,” The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 17 and “The NAACP’s Cynical Stance Against School Choice,” The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 19). It involves the lack of convincing evidence about their success in educating about seven percent of the nation’s students (“A Quiet Revolution,” The Weekly Standard, Oct. 14).

Studies supporting charter schools typically measure how their students perform on standardized tests compared with their peers at nearby traditional public schools. In this regard, charter schools overall post better results.

Last year, for example, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University found that students in charter schools in 41 of the nation’s urban districts learned significantly more than their counterparts at traditional public schools. For black, Hispanic, low-income, and special education students, the gains were especially impressive. Black students, for example, gained 59 days in math and 44 days in reading over their counterparts in traditional public schools.

Not surprisingly, wait lists for admission, particularly among black and Hispanic students, reflect this difference. In New York City, where 107,000 students or 10 percent of the city’s total enrollment are in charters, more than 44,000 students were turned away in September. The city’s charter school population has quintupled over the last seven years.

The situation is repeated in Boston, where 12,000 students or 20 percent of the city’s public school enrollment are on wait lists. The appeal to blacks there is largely the result of the 200 days gained in math and 100 days gained in reading. In November, Question 2 will ask voters to approve as many as 12 new charters each year, adding to about 70 already in operation in the state.

In light of this data, then, what’s the problem?

It’s the way evidence is gathered. When a charter school has more applicants than openings, state laws require a lottery to be held to determine admission. Because lotteries result in random assignment of students, the assumption is that all factors are properly controlled in making comparisons.

But lotteries apply only to charter schools popular enough in the first place to require them and to those that keep good records of the process. Supporters counter that the performance of students admitted can be compared with the performance of those who applied but didn’t win a spot. They say that takes into account the role self-selection plays. To pass muster, however, a study still has to demonstrate that the students from both schools being compared have similar situations at home.

I’ve long argued that parents have the right to send their children to any school they alone believe meets their unique needs and interests. But to be persuasive, studies must compare similar students if choice is to work as intended. The law, however, allows charter schools to play by a completely different set of rules. They don’t have to enroll all who show up at their door regardless of motivation, ability or background, and they can push students out for reasons they alone determine.

It’s little wonder under the circumstances that traditional public schools are hemorrhaging enrollment. In Detroit, for example, more than 51,000 students attend charters schools compared with 48,000 in traditional public schools. Los Angeles has 221 charter schools and more than 100,000 students or 16 percent of the district’s total enrollment, the most in both categories in the nation. New Orleans has an almost all-charter district. Charter schools nationwide have grown from 789,500 in 2003-04 to 2.5 million in 2013-14.

If the real goal of the 14,000 school districts in the country is to provide a quality education for all students, it’s imperative that all the facts be available so that parents can make informed decisions. As things stand, they have to rely on conflicting data and hope for the best.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.