The Economist: Charter Schools Help Those Who Need Help Most

It has been 20 years since Minnesota became host to an academic experiment: a school which is funded by public money but managed not by the local school district, but instead was allowed to make its own decisions on issues like staffing and curriculum. What resulted was the nation’s first charter school law, which served as a linchpin to the school choice movement that has swept through almost every state in the country.

Now, people are wondering if charter schools are actually making strides towards the goal that gave rise to them in the first place: providing an alternative to minority children and closing the income and racial achievement gap. Today, charter schools serve student bodies that are overwhelmingly minority and typically have lower achievement scores on standardized tests than the average student in their state. In all, two decades after the first gran experiment, nearly 4% of the nation’s students attend a charter school.

Louisiana has come the farthest in this regard. Charters played a starring role in the overhaul of the New Orleans’ education system after the Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Charter schools serve nearly two-thirds of the city’s students, and half of those schools outperform the city’s public schools when it comes to student achievement in math and English.

Although charter schools have won support from across the political spectrum, they have always attracted controversy. Much of the unease has been stirred up by teachers’ unions; charter schools do not usually employ unionized teachers. As recounted in a new book, “Zero Chance of Passage”, by Ember Reichgott Junge, a former Minnesota legislator who wrote the original charter legislation, unions have from the outset pushed the misleading idea that charters drain resources from traditional schools. They also maintain that politicians who support them are against public education. That is not true.

There’s a lack of serious academic research into the effectiveness of charter schools. A recent study by the University of Minnesota found that charters in Minneapolis – St Paul underperformed public schools by nearly 4.4%. Studies that have been released have often been dogged by controversy, especially Stanford University’s Credo study that found that only 17% of charters performed better than their district public schools while 37% performed worse. The rest showed results that were roughly on par with their local traditional schools.

However, recent work by Mathematica, an independent policy group, suggests that the Credo study is sound. The bigger problem is that its findings have been misinterpreted. First, the children who most need charters have been served well. Credo finds that students in poverty and English language learners fare better in charters. And a national “meta-analysis” of research, done last year for the Centre on Reinventing Public Education in Seattle, found charters were better at teaching elementary-school reading and mathematics, and middle-school mathematics. High-school charters, though, fared worse. Another recent study in Massachusetts for the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that urban charter schools are shown to be effective for minorities, poor students and low achievers.

07 18, 2012
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