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Questioning Charter School Superiority

It's not often that I get a chance to appear in the same column on the same day as the leader of a major movement in education. But on Mar. 3, my views about the success of charter schools were published right below those of Nina Rees, the president and chief executive of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools ("Inside the World of Charter Schools," The New York Times).

In her letter to the editor, Rees wrote that "charter students from low-income families are outperforming their traditional public school peers." This is the claim she repeated in an op-ed on Mar. 27 ("Will Obama's Budget Recognize Charter Schools?" The Wall Street Journal). To support her view in the essay, Rees cited a multiyear study of KIPP that was released in February by Mathematica Policy Research. According to investigators, after three years students in KIPP were 11 months ahead of their traditional public school peers in math, 14 months ahead in science, and 11 months ahead in social studies.

Rees emphasized that KIPP's success is all the more remarkable because it "draws from some of the most disadvantaged communities in the country." What she omitted, however, was that students in charter schools are there because their parents have chosen to enroll them there. Traditional public schools by law must enroll all students. As a result, self-selection contaminates results. Researchers attempt to control for this difference by comparing students who won the lottery to oversubscribed charters with those who did not. By doing so, they are comparing motivated students with motivated students. But this strategy can be applied successfully only to schools that are popular enough to require a lottery in the first place and that keep accurate records.

Charter schools deserve credit for their accomplishments, but they play by a completely different set of rules. Not only do most charters require parents to sign a contract that outlines their responsibilities, but they also reserve the right to counsel out underperforming students. These students invariably end up in traditional public schools, which become the schools of last resort. It's little wonder, therefore, that some charter schools can post the results that Rees heralds.

It's important to bear this in mind when reading about the plan to close 54 underused public schools in Chicago ("Rahm's Latest Union Beating," The Wall Street Journal, Apr. 4). The reason for under enrollment is that two-thirds of charter schools perform better on state tests than traditional public schools there, and three-fourths of charter graduates go to college. As a result, there is a charter waiting list of more than 19,000 because parents believe that charter schools are superior.

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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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