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Link Charters to Colleges

August 28, 2004

A report analyzing the failures of charter schools dropped like a bomb last week on the fledgling educational movement. After all the hopes placed on charters to boost student achievement, the numbers showed that students from the quasi-independent schools scored worse on a national test of reading and math skills than those in regular public schools.

Charter schools are publicly funded but operate free of many of the mandates that govern public schools. In exchange, they have a contractual obligation to raise achievement. That isn't happening, according to data compiled by the American Federation of Teachers, using numbers dug up from the U.S. Education Department. And the charter schools' usual defense -- that they serve a higher percentage of disadvantaged students -- falls apart in this study, which shows that even in the same demographic groups, public schools did better.

Instead of using the figures to attack all charters, though, opponents should take a second look at the report, which broke out separate data on six states. In two of those -- California and Colorado -- charter students did as well, or a bit better, than their public-school peers. And that's without taking into account the schools' more disadvantaged population. In other words, those schools did at least as well even with bigger hurdles.

These figures have value, and it's a shame that the U.S. Department of Education quietly buried the data in an online report released in November, leaving it to a teachers union to break out the numbers on charter schools. A key part of the Bush administration agenda is to privatize education through charters and vouchers, but federal officials seem unwilling to hold charters accountable. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, one option for continually failing public schools is to force them to be charters. But what happens if the charters fail? The federal law has nothing to say on the subject; the assumption seems to be that they can't possibly fail. This study makes it clear that they can. When they do, they should be closed. Better charter schools aren't created by ignoring weaknesses.

Nor are they created by legislative roadblocks, and that's where California comes in. Though the state has been wisely cautious about the charter movement, some of its limits amount to strangleholds. The state has ignored a recommendation by the legislative analyst's office earlier this year to make it easier for charter schools to get their due funding. And the Legislature has killed a bill, AB 2764, that would have allowed public colleges to authorize and supervise a modest number of charter schools. That job is done mostly by public school districts, which often are hostile or indifferent to them.

Public universities are a natural match for charters, which would benefit from professors' interest and the energy of volunteer students. The Legislature should take up this bill again next year and make it law.

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