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Bad News for Charter Schools

Although charter schools have been controversial since their inception, their supporters have argued that it's too soon to pass final judgment.  I agree with that view, but the latest news is not at all on their side.  I'm referring now to events in Phoenix and Columbus.  Since Arizona was one of the first states to authorize charters, in 1995, I'll begin there ("Arizona Hopes New Charter Schools Can Lift Poor Phoenix Area," The New York Times, Jan. 17).  

The argument has always been that once free of the regulations and unions that prevail in traditional public schools, charter schools would demonstrate their superiority by their test scores. But that has not been the case in Arizona, where the standardized test scores of charter school students are lower than for those in traditional public schools.  (I stress the word "traditional" because charter schools are public schools.)

This is not surprising since Arizona spends 17 percent less on public schools than the national average, and posted the nation's largest decline in funding from 2002 to 2012, despite a 12 percent increase in enrollment.  Moreover, the Phoenix Union High School District has a  predominately poor Hispanic student body.  I can't think of a worse prescription for disappointment.

Meanwhile, in Columbus 17 charter schools closed in 2013, leaving 250 students abandoned ("Columbus has 17 charter school failures in one year," Columbus Dispatch, Jan. 17).  The closures were attributed to financial, health and safety problems. Since 1997 when charter schools became legal in Ohio, 29 percent have closed.  

That's predictable since there is little oversight of charter schools,  a problem given short shrift by reformers who, in their zeal to promote the movement, have led taxpayers to believe that a free market is the answer. What is certain to weaken efforts to correct matters is on display in Wisconsin, where a bill would remove local school districts' ability to oversee and staff charter schools ("Republicans Fire Another Shot at Wisconsin's Public Schools," The Progressive, Jan. 21).

If charter schools can produce evidence that they consistently do a better job than traditional public schools in educating similar students,  they deserve more time.  But the clock is running out. It doesn't seem unreasonable to expect better outcomes in the 18 years they have been in existence.

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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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