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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. The University of Arkansas today released what it calls a first ever study comparing charter schools to traditional public schools. The study's headline - charter schools keep pace with public schools in terms of student achievement and they do it with a lot less money. Claudio Sanchez with the NPR Ed team reports that both the study's methodology and its conclusions are controversial.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: The study focused on eighth-graders in 28 states and is based on two sets of data. First, the amount of money charter schools receive per student compared to public schools. Researchers then compared how kids in both kinds of schools did in reading and math based on one big test - the federal NAEP test. The study's conclusion, according to the lead author, Patrick Wolf.

PATRICK WOLF: The charter school sectors in states across the country are more productive in generating desirable student outcomes at a lower cost than the traditional public schools.

SANCHEZ: On NAEP, charter student scores are roughly on par with those of traditional public school kids. Wolf, however, argues that charters are 40 percent more productive because they get less money - about $3,800 less per student on average.

WOLF: Charter schools have to be very lean. We know that they tend to employ fewer administrators, fewer support personnel. They tend to channel more of their scarce resources directly into the classroom. And so that may be the specific source of their greater productivity.

SANCHEZ: But one NAEP official told NPR the study's correlation between NAEP scores and school funding is not reliable. And Ted Kolderie, who many consider the godfather of the charter school movement, says he's not convinced by the report.

TED KOLDERIE: This is the kind of (quote) "study" we've been seeing for years and years, that falls into the category of advocacy research. Pretty soon you'll have another study showing just the opposite.

SANCHEZ: Another big flaw, says Kolderie, is that the researcher's definition of productivity and effectiveness is based exclusively on standardized test scores.

KOLDERIE: Is achievement, performance, success, quality really one-dimensional?

SANCHEZ: Some critics also say that the $3,800 funding gap is overstated. The National Education Policy Center has argued that charters often depend on districts to pay for big budget items like school lunches and transportation. Charters also don't enroll nearly as many special education students, who are more expensive to teach. Still, Patrick Wolf stands by his study.

WOLF: What our research is suggesting is when funds are scarce in education as they are now, we're getting more bang for our buck with our investments in public charter schools compared to district-run schools.

SANCHEZ: But in the long-running debate between supporters of charters and traditional public schools, this study raises more questions than it answers. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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