Where’s the Outrage Over Charter School Performance? by Gerald W. Bracey

Printed with permission of the author, Gerald W. Bracey

Near the end of the 1969 film, “Easy Rider,” Dennis Hopper extols all the fun and wonderful things he and biker buddy Peter Fonda have been able to accomplish with the cash from their big cocaine deal that begins the movie. Fonda looks at Hopper and says, “We blew it.”

I’ve lately been reviewing the data from charter school evaluations around the country. That scene kept coming to mind. If I could line up the zealots who’ve been touting charters for over a decade now, I’d say, “You blew it.” If charter schools had been invented by and championed by some part of the “education establishment” like the NEA, the Right would have long since proclaimed charters yet another failed fad (in fact, charters were first popularized by the AFT which later rejected them as having failed to deliver on their potential).

Not only have charters failed to deliver the goods as promised, but their champions have often used a double standard to evaluate them. Charter advocates labeled public schools with low test scores as “failing schools.” When charter schools display low test scores– and they have, overwhelmingly–their advocates say they are working with difficult to educate students. The demographics of charters mitigate against high test scores, don’cha know. This is, of course, precisely the argument that school bashers reject as a pathetic excuse if it comes from the public schools. (“Charter Pupils Test Scores Low” read a December, 2002 headline in the Cincinnati Enquirer; “So often, the populations of community [charter] schools are students who have not had success in traditional school districts,” said an Ohio Department of Education spokesperson in the article.
“Substandard Charter Fail 17,000 Pupils” exclaimed an October, 2003 headline in the Detroit News. “We tend to draw more students from low-income groups” said an officer of the educational management organization that runs the worst performing schools.)

Charter school advocates have not been content to just skewer public schools, but have also registered dismay over other education reform efforts. In Charter Schools in Action,
Chester Finn, Bruno Manno, and Greg Vanourek declared that despite “barrels of good intentions, reform efforts have yielded meager dividends.” Finn once fumed, “The public
school system as we know has proved that it cannot reform itself. It is an ossified government monopoly….” Hence, goes the illogic, charter schools must be better.

Well, charters certainly have a peculiar way of proving their superiority. For instance, in 2002, the Texas accountability system ranked 10 percent of the state’s charters as either
“exemplary” or “recognized.” Sixty-one percent of public schools achieved one or the other of these designations. Only 2 percent of public schools fell into the “low
performing” category, but 17 percent of charters got this lowest ranking and another 22 percent of charters that were evaluated with a less rigours alternative system were found
in need of review.

In California, recent evaluations by David Rogosa at Stanford University and a cadre of researchers at RAND, failed to find that charters were living up to their promise (a study from the Hoover Institution did find positive outcomes for charters at the high school level, but as Rogosa pointed out, the Hoover researcher committed a fundamental statistical mistake that voided her conclusions). Before summarizing the results from these evaluations, let’s consider explicitly what the charter promise was.

The basic bargain of charter schools is a promise to improve achievement in return for autonomy. The charters will be forthright and honest about that improved achievement.
The promise was stated forcefully in 1996 by Joe Nathan of the University of Minnesota:

Hundreds of charter schools have been created around this nation by educators who are willing to put their jobs on the line to say, “If we can’t improve student achievement, close down our school.” This is accountability–clear specific and real.

A year later, Manno, Finn, and Vanourek, along with Mary Lou Bierlein echoed Nathan’s faith in the importance of accountability:

Not only will [accountability] make or break the charter movement itself, it will also be the primary source of evidence as to whether that movement is making a valuable contribution to the education of American children…or is another half-tried reform fad that sinks into the sand like so many others.

Three years after that, Finn, Manno and Vanourek were back observing “Charter school discussions are saturated with talk about accountability.” The operative word was “talk.” These authors now proposed a new system of “accountability via transparency,” a reporting system that would have been much, much more complex and onerous than the one required by No Child Left Behind. “Would have been” because, needless to say, no one chose to suffer under such a system.

Indeed, a recent report by Gary Miron and Christopher Nelson at Western Michigan University was titled “Student Academic Achievement in Charter Schools: What We Know and Why We Know So Little.” A number of the reasons are technical and could be cured with money and systematic effort, but there are also “political motivations.” States block systematic studies of charter schools because they fear what they might find. And, as Katrina Bulkley has observed, even when there is evidence that a particular charter school is not working, officials are reluctant to shut it down for fear that such
action might speak badly about charter schools as reform tools. As Manno once put it, “Truth be told, they [charter school authorizers and operators] are often content to leave
accountability agreements nebulous and undefined.” Some accountability!

Recently, Ted Kolderie suggested gains in test scores might be more important than high test scores in evaluating charters. True enough, but charters don’t offer much positive
evidence there, either. The RAND study of selected districts in California found that “charter school students are keeping pace with comparable students in conventional schools.” It’s hard to imagine a more pusillanimous conclusion. Actually, it’s worse than pusillanimous. In the 2003 NAEP reading assessment, California finished 49th at the fourth grade level and tied for 50th at grade eight. So “keeping pace” means doing as well as the lowest scoring students in the country, an accomplishment that was treated positively in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and Education Week.

Analyzing statewide California data, Rogosa found no difference in gains between charters and public schools at the elementary school level, but large differences favoring
regular schools at the middle and high school level. Similar results using matched public and charter schools have been reported in Michigan and Ohio.

I am certain that a number of charters exist that anyone would call “exemplary.” But there are large numbers of public schools that would fit that description. Indeed, a
decade ago Money magazine, much to the shock of its editors, declared that if you live in a suburb and send your children to private schools, “you are probably wasting your hard-earned money.”

All of these data raise a question: where is the outrage? Charter schools were born out of criticism of public schools. But they are doing no better and in some cases worse than
those same lousy public schools. Of 18 statewide studies reviewed by Miron and Nelson, only one was positive (and I would characterize that one as “mixed”).

School critics have sung a steady chorus of failure about public schools. So where’s the criticism of charters? Because the public schools are presumptive failures, charters are, in fact, held to a lower standard of accountability than are the publics. Anything has got to be better than the public schools, right?

Only one state has begun to take appropriate action to either get accountability or shut the charters down. As much as any official document can, the fifth and final report on charters from Ohio’s Legislative Office of Educational Oversight (LOEO) seethes with frustration because charter schools have failed to provide information or have provided inaccurate or incomplete information about goals, achievement and finances. As the LOEO notes, this information is routinely supplied by public schools, meaning that the state has not laid some unique, onerous burden on the charters. One need read only a wee bit between the lines to think that LOEO’s denial that the charters are failing to provide information on purpose actually implies that they are.

The report wraps up with “LOEO recommends that the General Assembly continue to support the community schools [charters] initiative only if the Ohio Department of Education and community school sponsors do the following:…” It then lays out seven requirements that must be met if the legislature is not to terminate charter school funding. Emphasis in the original.

One cannot be sanguine that the Ohio legislature will take appropriate action. This is, after all, the same spineless body that pushed through, literally in the dead of night, a $10.5 million expansion of the Cleveland voucher program soon after an evaluation of the program indicated that public school students had gained a lot more in three years than the voucher students.

Still, unlike Fonda and Hopper, who never got a chance on screen to undo their mistakes, the Ohio legislature now has the opportunity not to blow it.

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