Thursday, June 30, 2005

Public schools perform better than charters

I am not anti-charter school. But I am only pro-charter school to the extent that they have strict financial oversight and are subject to the same standards as public schools.

It was after all Albert Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers who created the idea. He envisioned charters as little engines of educational innovation. As such, they should be encouraged.

And yet, today I read this, from yesterday's Cincinnati Enquirer:

More than half of 112 charter schools rated by the state for student achievement are labeled in "academic emergency" or "academic watch" - the lowest rankings possible.

Charter teachers are some of the least qualified in Ohio, with almost half lacking full certification in their teaching areas.

The schools as a whole are performing worse than urban districts, while siphoning money and students from school districts statewide.

Ohio taxpayers are spending more than $424 million on charter schools this year.

..."My concern is that many of these charter schools are not living up to the promise of what charter schools had to offer," says state Sen. J. Kirk Schuring, a Republican from Canton. "In fact, there are many that are really getting some bad results."

And from another Republican lawmaker:

..."The state of Ohio is spending over $400 million on charter schools," says Rep. W. Scott Oelslager, a Republican from Canton. "There has to be a greater degree of accountability to be responsible to the taxpayers."

And lest you think this is unfair, consider this:

...Ohio allows a two-year delay before giving new charter schools state report cards and academic ratings. But of those that were rated in 2003-04, 54 percent were considered substandard - compared with 10 percent of traditional public schools.

Now some supporters insist the comparison isn't fair:

Supporters say comparing charters to traditional public schools is unfair, particularly because state law requires charter schools to open only in the lowest-performing school districts.

"By and large, the comparisons that the opposition is trying to make can't be made," says Stephen J. Ramsey, president of the Ohio Charter School Association. "Of our charter schools open right now ... over a third of them are serving kids who exclusively are dropouts or wards of agencies like juvenile court."

For dropouts, I buy the argument. Any charter that focuses on students that dropped out of public school, should not be held to the same standard. But to claim that kids who are poor or are wards of the courts shouldn't be figured into a school's numbers is ludicrous.

The point is simple: No matter what the school looks like -- whether it be traditional, charter, or private -- it will always be difficult and costly to educate poor kids. (I hate the term "economically disadvantaged," let's call a spade a spade. They're poor.) That doesn't mean it can't be done. It can -- and must -- be done. But there is no panacea. Sorry free marketeers, but competition is not a magical potion.

To continue with the story:

Glenda Brown, superintendent of Phoenix Community Learning Center in Bond Hill, says students come to her charter school two and three years below grade level.

The school is making gains, she says. In the 2001-02 school year, just 2.4 percent of fourth-graders passed the reading test. That climbed to 69 percent by 2003-04.

But Phoenix students still struggled in math. Just of a fourth of them passed that test.

Again, it appears -- in light of that data -- that public schools aren't so bad after all. Consider this:

On average, passing rates for the state's urban districts are better than the rates for charters. For instance, 52 percent of fourth-graders in the state's eight, big-city school districts passed reading, which is 18 percentage points higher than in charter schools.

"There is no body of evidence that says that charter schools do better than traditional public schools," says Gary Miron, chief of staff at the Evaluation Center at Western Michigan University, which has studied charter schools nationally.

Some critics say charters' poor results stem from using unqualified teachers.

In charter schools, 45 percent of teachers lack full certification in their content area, compared with 7 percent in all Ohio schools, according to the state Department of Education.

And what does all this "success" and competition cost:

...Ohio charters receive at least $5,169 for every student enrolled. Some of that comes directly from the state, some from the local district where the student resides.

Fairfield is losing $779,352. Oak Hills and Mason each are handing over more than $200,000 this year. Lakota is paying out $677,171 this year to charter schools, an amount school officials say is unfair. Under a complicated funding formula, Lakota receives about $2,800 from the state for each student but pays out about $6,900 for each student it loses to a charter school.

"I'm not anti-charter school," Lakota district treasurer Alan Hutchinson says. "If they are a public educational entity and the students are going there, then how the state funds them is their business. But don't deduct it from us."

Well said.


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