Federal study deserves an F

Posted on September 21, 2006 | Type: In the News
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Not to be high of hand, but people living in the more . . . well, benighted regions of the country outside Arizona often fail to grasp life's more complex issues.

Like the efficacy of charter schools. People who dwell in these places just don't seem to get charters.

Charter schools proliferate in Arizona as nowhere else. Over 86,000 Arizona students attend some 500 charters here. Some of the state's most academically demanding schools, like Tempe Preparatory Academy, are charters.

Charter schools in Mesa, which lured 700 students last year from their traditional public schools, have so dramatically affected the student population of the Mesa district that it is taking action to lure those students back. Which is another way of saying that the traditional system is improving itself as a result of direct competition for students from charters.

There have been failures, of course. Unlike failing traditional public schools, poorly performing charters can be closed, and they have been. The fact is, no responsible advocate of charter schools ever has claimed that charters constitute the last word in school reform.

Charters are not for everyone. They are an option, not an "answer" to the problems facing traditional public education. And very often, these small independent schools provide the last chance for marginal students who are hanging onto the system by their fingernails.

That is the Arizona charter experience in a nutshell. Now, however, contrast Arizona's real-world experience with the barely restrained glee of charter critics, who are celebrating a federal Education Department study that purports to show that charter students perform more poorly than traditional public-school counterparts.

It proved no such thing.

For one thing, the study - written by the Educational Testing Service - claims to adjust for the socio-economic conditions of both charter and traditional public-school students. It based those comparisons, though, on a notoriously suspect barometer, the percentage of students in each school who qualify for federally underwritten school lunch programs. Because of its high volume of paperwork and strict staffing requirements, few charters enroll in the federal lunch program.

But the biggest drawback of the study is that it did not examine the previous academic-achievement records of charter students. That is to say, it did not consider the possibility that poorly performing students had improved since moving to a charter.

It's not as though such data isn't available. In 2004, Lewis C. Solmon and Pete Goldschmidt examined nearly 158,000 test scores of more than 60,000 Arizona students at 873 charter and traditional schools. Conducted over three years on behalf of the Goldwater Institute, the study found what the Department of Ed study didn't bother looking for: charter students on average begin their charter-school careers with lower test scores than their traditional-school counterparts.

But while starting at a handicap, they show annual achievement growth that is roughly three points higher than the traditional-school students.

As many Arizonans well know, parents need a serious reason to move their kids onto a strange, new academic playing field.

Sometimes that reason is the undeniable brightness of the school's light, as with Tempe Prep. But just as often, perhaps more so, the reason is a student's failure to flourish in the traditional environment.

It is foolish to suggest that charters constitute anything more than an educational option.

But it is worse than foolish to conclude there is anything "mythical" about that option.

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