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Charter School Report Card

It's disturbing to read an essay that claims to offer a true account about charter schools at this crucial point in the reform movement but instead presents a distorted picture. I'm referring to a piece in The Wall Street Journal by Joel Klein ("New York's Charter Schools Get an A+," Jul. 27). As readers will recall, Klein was the former chancellor of New York City's public schools who is now the CEO of News Corporation's educational division. News Corporation owns The Wall Street Journal.

Klein starts off by asserting that the educational establishment has things turned around. Maintaining that "we'll never fix education in America until we fix poverty" is an excuse. Instead, he says that "we'll never fix poverty until we fix education." Although Klein acknowledges the deleterious effects that poverty has on educating students, he cites standardized test scores from both New York City and New York State as evidence that the education establishment is wrong. Specifically, charter schools in New York City outperformed traditional schools by 12 points in math and five points in reading, even though they both have about the same ratio of poor children. Charter schools in New York City slightly outscored the entire state of New York, which has far fewer poor childen and minorities. The poverty rate for charter schools in the city is more than 75 percent, compared with 50 percent for the state as a whole.

At first glance, these differences are impressive. But what Klein omits are two crucial factors. First, a report released in June by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, showed that charter schools are not enrolling as high a portion of special education students as traditional public schools ("Charter Schools Fall Short on Disabled," The Wall Street Journal, Jun. 20). Although federal law requires charter schools to admit students with disabilities, they are often refused enrollment or pushed out once enrolled in order to boost test scores.

Second, a study by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA found that charter schools promote segregation nationwide, particularly for African American students ("Charter schools' growth promoting segregation, studies say," Los Angeles Times, Feb. 5, 2010). They also serve fewer English learners, according to education policy centers at the University of Colorado and Arizona State University. Klein inadvertently weakens his case in this regard by writing that traditional public schools in New York City have a significantly smaller ratio of black and Latino children than charter schools, meaning that charter schools are becoming more racially segregated.

Klein says that the "poverty-is-destiny" crowd will try to explain away the results he notes by nitpicking. But I hardly believe that what I cite above qualifies as nitpicking. Nevertheless, I still think that charter schools deserve a fair chance to prove what they can do for students who have been ill served by traditional public schools. But in order to make a compelling case for their existence, it's imperative that all the facts be made available. Klein has not done so.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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