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Charter School Evaluation Is Tricky

Even though their overall performance is mixed, charter schools are the darlings of reformers. In certain cities, however, they have indeed posted impressive results. The situation in Los Angeles, home of the nation's second largest school district, is a case in point ("A charter school expansion could be great for L.A." Los Angeles Times, Sep. 13).

Slightly more than a fifth of all students in the mammoth district are currently enrolled in charter schools, and wait lists for admission exceed 40,000 applicants. It's understandable why.  Charters have delivered a better education, particularly to low-income minority students, than traditional public schools in Los Angeles. As a result, the plan is to double the number of students to nearly 300,000.

The trouble is that the decision is based on evidence that is blatantly unfair.  Of course charter schools have posted better results than traditional public schools in Los Angeles and - by extension - in some other cities as well.  Why shouldn't they? They counsel out low-achieving students, who then enroll in traditional public schools. They also erect barriers for enrollment, such as expecting parents to "volunteer" for certain activities, and requiring long application essays. In short, they operate like private schools.

I've long believed that if traditional public schools could do the same, there would be no difference between the two. Studies have compared the performance of students who applied to oversubscribed charter schools but didn't win the lottery (and then enrolled in traditional neighborhood schools) with that of students in the same charter schools.  The aim was to control for self-selection.  In other words, motivated students in charters versus motivated students in traditional schools.  But other factors contaminated the results.

Until I see far better evidence about the alleged superiority of charter schools, I remain skeptical.  Unfortunately, the LAUSD is intent on going full-steam ahead with its plan. I hope the results will prove them right this time.

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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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