Do Charter Schools Make the Grade?

For a decade charter schools have been touted as an alternative to under performing public schools. But a new government survey shows these schools lagging slightly behind public schools in student achievement.

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There are 3,600 charter schools across the country, serving more than a million students. For a decade these schools have been touted as an alternative to underperforming public schools. However, a new government survey suggests that at least when it comes to test scores, charter schools may not be that much different.

NPR's Elaine Korry reports.

ELAINE KORRY: The debate has been raging for a decade. Which are better, charter schools run by private companies or public schools? Each new study gives one side or the other fresh ammunition. This time public schools got the edge.

Mark Schneider is commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which analyze scores from a closely watched test called The Nation's Report Card.

MARK SCHNEIDER: Overall, in 2003, the nation's charter schools were underperforming the traditional public schools.

KORRY: The differences were huge. Fourth graders in charter schools scored about five points lower in reading and about six points lower in math. Yet school choice advocates and opponents are already arguing about what that means.

JAIME ZAPATA: Our findings were actually very much the same.

KORRY: Jaime Zapata with the American Federation of Teachers says the latest numbers match what the union gleaned from its own study in 2004. He says this vindicates the union's position that charters drain valuable resources and government funding from struggling school districts.

ZAPATA: This is really solid evidence that policymakers, that parents, certainly should consider, and be reminded of the fact that charter schools were never intended to be a replacement for public schools.

KORRY: But advocates for charter schools were quick to slam the study's results.

JEANNE ALLEN: They were starting with faulty data. It was just sloppy government stuff.

KORRY: Jeanne Allen is the president of the Center for Education Reform in Washington, D.C., which promotes school choice. She says the study used a poor gauge of how many low-income children attend charters, and that skewed the data. She says better measurements would've produced better results.

ALLEN: When you compare apples to apples, charter schools do indeed outperform traditional public schools in reading and math in almost every urban center where they're clustered. We have data from New York, we have data from Boston, Minneapolis, D.C., L.A., you name it.

KORRY: In fact, the government data just out says when it comes to high poverty urban schools, test scores are roughly wash, far from the clear-cut victory that both the unions and charter advocates would like to claim. But both sides continued to fight about models and variables and how the data gets interpreted.

Commissioner Schneider says that unfortunate because it doesn't answer the most important question.

SCHNEIDER: What we really need to know is what charter schools and what traditional public schools are doing right and for whom.

KORRY: Schneider says knowing what a national study says about charters won't help parents in a neighborhood of, say, Atlanta or Denver decide on the best school for their particular child. All school choice decisions are local, he says. And few parents pick a school on the basis of test scores alone.

Elaine Korry, NPR News.

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