ED Study Paints Portrait of Charter Schools

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Charter schools tend to be smaller than traditional public schools, enroll roughly the same proportion of minority and low-income students, and, on average, serve slightly lower proportions of students with disabilities and limited English proficiency, according to a long-awaited study from the Department of Education.

Most charter schools were created to realize a specific educational vision or to gain greater autonomy, the study goes on to note. And many struggle with insufficient start-up money and planning time.

But the research released last week does not answer the pressing question of whether charter schools produce higher student achievement than traditional public schools do. To get an answer to that and many other difficult policy questions, educators and policymakers will likely have to wait until 1999, when the department concludes its four-year research project.

What the first-year report does provide is a descriptive snapshot of the 252 charter schools that were operating in 10 states as of January 1996. Nationwide, the total now approaches 500 schools; 25 states and the District of Columbia have passed charter school laws.

While last week's report contained few surprises, the department's research effort is being closely watched. The project has been billed as the most definitive look at charter schools to date.

Observers also have raised concerns in the past because some experts involved in the project are strong advocates of charter schools. ("Under the Microscope," Nov. 6, 1996.) And the $2.6 million project is sponsored by an administration that, starting with President Clinton himself, has vocally supported the concept of charter schools, which are public schools that operate free of many state and local regulations.

So far, observers said last week, the work appears objective.

"I'd get off the board if I felt it was a whitewash, frankly," said Robert L. Linn, a professor of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a member of the study's advisory board. "But they've been open to presenting what they have and the limitations in the information they've been able to collect so far."

No Explicit 'Creaming'

Teachers' union officials responded to the report by emphasizing that more research is needed. "It is vitally important to have data available so that U.S. taxpayers can judge the efficacy of the charter model," the National Education Association said.

Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, while underscoring the administration's support of charters at a news conference last week, agreed that further analysis must be done.

"Charter schools are not panaceas. Like everything else they must be done right," Mr. Riley said. "Above all else, we must have a strong focus on supporting all of public education--charter schools and all other schools."

RPP International, a for-profit research company in Emeryville, Calif., conducted the study, along with the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, and the Institute for Responsive Education, a nonprofit, Boston-based research group.

The results are based on a national telephone survey of charter schools--which had an unusually high response rate of 90 percent--and site visits to 42 schools. The authors underscored the difficulty in drawing generalizations about charter schools because they vary so much from state to state and from one another within any given state.

Among the findings:

  • Taken as a group, charter schools reported a racial composition that roughly mirrored their respective statewide averages. Massachusetts, Michigan, and Minnesota enrolled a higher percentage of minority students than public schools as a whole in those states. Researchers did not find evidence of explicit exclusionary practices or "creaming" of students, but the report notes that data were not yet available to determine if more subtle discrimination occurs.
  • Among the states studied, at least one in five charter schools served predominantly minority students; one in three served a diverse group of white and minority students; and one in two charter schools served predominantly white students.
  • About one-third of charter school students were eligible for free or reduced-price school meals--roughly the same as students in other public schools.
  • On average, charter schools served a lower proportion of students with disabilities, except for Minnesota and Wisconsin. Except in Minnesota and Massachusetts, they also served a lower proportion of students with limited English skills.
  • While nearly all charter schools face obstacles, their most frequently cited barrier was a lack of start-up money.

Out of Date?

In addition to the four-year project, the Education Department plans to commission studies to take a more in-depth look at issues concerning charter schools and disabled students, at-risk students and equity, finance, and accountability.

Some charter school supporters criticized the study last week as out of date in a rapidly growing and changing movement, particularly since the study looks at only those schools open as of January 1996.

In addition, its racial data can be misleading, said Joe Nathan of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota. One reason Colorado, for example, does not have as high minority participation as some other states is that charter schools in Denver--one of the state's most racially diverse communities--have not been able to get off the ground.

Mr. Nathan is one of the charter school proponents involved in the research project whose presence had some worried that the research would be less than objective. He has gone from being a consultant on the project to one of 10 members of the study's advisory board.

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