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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Pro-Con: Charter Schools - Con: Statistics show no significant advantage over regular public education

Wayne Au Special to The Spokesman-Review

Advocates assert that charter schools are a key reform for raising the achievement of African-American, Latino and low-income students in Washington state. The problem is that the research evidence does not support this assertion.

Take for instance the study done by Mathematica, done with assistance from a pro-charter, conservative research institution, the Center for Reinventing Public Education, formally housed at my own institution, the University of Washington-Bothell.

The Mathematica study found that, “Although overall average two- and three-year test score impacts are positive in all four subjects, they are not statistically significant” (p. 56). When something is “not statistically significant,” that’s research-speak for “there is no difference.” The charters in the Mathematica study simply performed the same as regular public schools. And this was true even though the charters in the study had significant advantages for higher test scores such as having higher-performing African-American and Latino students, fewer English Language Learners, fewer students with disabilities and smaller class sizes.

Or, as another example, take the study completed by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), a research group at Stanford’s conservative, and pro-charter, Hoover Institute. This study found that charter schools performed worse than public schools 36 percent of the time, performed better 17 percent of the time, and performed no differently the rest of the time. The CREDO study suggests that charter schools are twice as likely to make student achievement worse as they are to improve it.

Research on charter schools in New York City, California, Idaho, Indiana, Minnesota and New Jersey, among others, are all consistent with both the Mathematica and CREDO studies: Charters do not increase student achievement compared to regular public schools.

In response to such research, charter advocates often suggest that we can just replicate the few high-performing charters on a large scale. Again, there is no research to support this idea. It simply has never been done successfully anywhere.

Even the success of Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charters, which have been offered as a model of success, is misleading. One major study found that KIPP test scores and college entrance rates were artificially inflated because KIPP schools have kicked out or lost African-American and Latino students at up to three and four times district averages.

Research has also revealed other important points to consider about charter schools: They are underserving English Language Learners and students with disabilities; they do not keep accurate track of student demographics (e.g., how many of their students are on free and reduced lunch); their governing boards regularly lack oversight or public accountability of their operations; they have reached levels of racial segregation not seen since before the 1954 Brown v. Board ruling that legally ended “separate but equal” schooling, prompting the NAACP to issue a statement in 2010 expressing its opposition to charter schools.

One point that is lost in the debate about charter schools is that, according to multiple studies, in-school factors make up only about 20 percent of a student’s achievement, while out-of-school factors account for about 60 percent (with 20 percent measurement error).

If we want to close the achievement gap we need to look beyond the classroom and recognize that effective schools and teachers are just one important part of a network of social services required for student success.

Yes, we absolutely have to improve the achievement of African-American, Latino and low-income students. However, as the Washington state Legislature considers charters as a possible option in our state, I hope they understand that the charter school reform agenda is based on politics and not what works for kids.

Wayne Au is an assistant professor in the Education Program at the University of Washington – Bothell, and he is an editor for the social justice teaching magazine Rethinking Schools.
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