Critical Union Report About Charter Schools Raises Ire of Advocates

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An American Federation of Teachers report condemning a majority of the nation's charter schools drew substantial fire upon its release last month and, so far, appears to have spurred few second thoughts among state officials about their policies on the nontraditional public schools.

The teachers' union examined state data, among other information, and concluded that the country's charter schools have failed to work as expected.

The 108- page analysis, "Do Charter Schools Measure Up?: The Charter School Experiment After 10 Years," cautions against the expansion of such efforts. It contends that the schools, contrary to what supporters had anticipated, do not produce student achievement higher than that of other public schools, empower teachers, or serve as models for innovation.

Charter school advocates immediately contested the findings of the 1.3 million-member union, charging that the AFT was biased against the charter concept and that the data used in the report were outdated and skewed.

Meanwhile, officials in state education departments said they had read the report carefully, but had no plans to seek alterations in their charter school programs based on the conclusions. They've received only a handful of telephone calls about the study, the officials added, mostly from reporters.

"We're always interested in the opinions ... of stakeholders," said Steve Burigana, the executive director of the Ohio education department's office of community schools, as charters are called in that state. But, he added, "I think it's still early in the game" to condemn charter schools.

"We have charter schools which work very well and address the needs, and other charter schools that do not," he said.

Of Ohio's 3,700 K-12 buildings, 95 are charter schools, enrolling about 24,000 students.

'A Dead End'?

The report, unveiled at the AFT's biennial convention, held here July 15-18, found that:

  • Student achievement in charter schools remains comparable with that in regular public schools.
  • Charter school teachers feel less empowered to make changes in their workplaces than do their peers in traditional buildings, and they hold mixed feelings about administrators and governance structures.
  • Charter efforts encourage innovation at the organizational level, but are less successful at changing instruction.
  • Charters contribute to the isolation of students by race and class.
  • The schools fail to be more accountable financially than regular public schools.
  • Such schools generally get as much money from public and private sources as regular public schools receive from government coffers, but they educate fewer special-needs children, who tend to cost more to educate.

"They are a dead end," said Tom Mooney, the chairman of the union's program and policy council, which provided input on the report, and the president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers.

Charter proponents, meanwhile, countered claims made by the AFT report. For example, they cited studies undertaken in Arizona, California, and Chicago that found charter school students outperforming their counterparts in regular school systems.

"An AFT study on charter schools has about as much creditability as a Philip Morris study on smoking," Lawrence Patrick III, the president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, argued in a statement circulated by his group and five other pro-charter organizations.

Still, a study released in North Carolina last month draws conclusions similar to those in the AFT report. The North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research, a nonprofit group based in Raleigh that studies public-policy issues, found that charter schools in the state did not perform as well as other public schools on end-of-grade reading, writing, and mathematics tests. Moreover, the charter schools lacked racial balance and showed problems with financial management, that report says.

"It is a road that is not terribly productive," Joan Baratz-Snowden, the director of the AFT's educational issues department, said of the charter approach. "Charter schools are a distraction from what we need to be doing."

Vol. 21, Issue 43, Page 14

Published in Print: August 7, 2002, as Critical Union Report About Charter Schools Raises Ire of Advocates
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  • In addition to its new report, the AFT posts an issues page on charter schools, setting out criteria for good charter school legislation. "Currently," the union says, "no state meets all of the AFT’s criteria for charter school legislation."
  • The Center for Education Reform, a charter school advocate, issued a statement condemning the AFT's report, citing the views of a number of other education organizations. The statement charges the AFT "deliberately skewed" the data.
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