Education Up Front

September 9, 2004

September 21, 2004

October 12, 2004

Charter schools are making a difference after all

American humorist Will Rogers took a good-natured jab at media credibility 80 years ago when he admitted: "All I know is what I read in the papers." If that were the case today, millions of Americans who read a news account last month about charter school performance would have been seriously misled.

The New York Times created a ruckus among educational reform advocates and others when an Aug. 17 article cited a single sample from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to misrepresent the performance of charter schools in the United States. That story was picked up and displayed prominently in scores of other newspapers all over the country.

The story cited a national comparison of test scores among children in charter schools and other public schools, supposedly "unearthed" by the American Federation of Teachers, which showed charter school students often did worse than their counterparts in traditional schools. The reporter surmised that the findings deal "a blow to supporters of the charter school movement, including the Bush administration."

According to the news report, the data shows fourth-grade charter school students performing about a half year behind students in other public schools in both reading and math. In other words, the reporter wrote, 25 percent of the fourth-graders at charter schools were proficient in reading and math, compared to 30 percent at traditional public schools. And, because charter schools are concentrated in cities, often in poor neighborhoods, the research supposedly examined charter and traditional schools in large-city settings and concluded that students in urban charter schools also did worse than their public school counterparts.

In its response to these findings, the Center for Educational Reform reported that the data cited in the newspaper article were collected from fewer than 1 percent of charter students in seven states -- hardly representative of the 3,000 charter schools that today serve nearly 800,000 students in 38 states.

Although the NAEP information may hold some limited value, it needs to be taken into account with more comprehensive data. In so doing, there is a clear demonstration that charter schools are, in fact, succeeding at promoting high academic achievement among their students.

That's an important accomplishment, considering that charter schools serve a disproportionate share of children who are least prepared and most behind academically. More than half the charter schools serve populations where more than 40 percent of their students are considered at risk. National data show that 27.3 percent of charter school students are African-American, compared to 17 percent in other public schools, while Hispanic students comprise 20.8 percent of charter school enrollments, compared to 14.9 percent in other public schools.

With all that in mind, here are some major findings resulting from a comprehensive overview of 2003 testing data that would have produced an accurate news account:

  • Fourth-grade students in Arizona, California and Colorado charter schools outperformed their traditional public school counterparts in reading. It's important to realize that one-third of all charter schools in the nation are in California and Arizona.

  • Eighth-grade charter school students in Washington, D.C., and California outscored all other public schools in their respective state and district in reading.

  • Eighth-graders in Colorado and Delaware charter schools, for example, outperformed eighth-graders at all other public schools nationwide in both reading and math.

  • According to a study of 60,000 Arizona students, the longer a child is in a charter school, the better he or she achieves, resulting in charter schools outperforming other public school students across the board in that state.

  • Here in California, charter schools produce stronger student achievement among low-income students than those in traditional public schools by a margin of nearly 5 percent.

  • Wisconsin's charter schools are doing better than traditional schools on the results of state tests in the fourth and eighth grades for the past two years.

  • In Michigan, charter schools showed greater gains than the statewide average in all but one of 10 grades and subjects in an educational progress team statewide.

  • Six out of 10 urban charter schools in Massachusetts outperformed comparable traditional schools in statewide testing program last year.

    Despite the fact that charter schools not meeting the needs of their students can be shut down, only 311 charter schools had closed as of January of this year -- 9 percent of all charter schools ever opened. Traditional public schools have had far more latitude and patience extended to them than any charter school has ever enjoyed.

    The fact is that charter schools are teaching and learning venues where considerable academic progress is being demonstrated -- despite their greater percentages of at-risk children. The diverse reforms at work in our charter schools are making a big difference in the quality of education students are receiving.

    When all is said and done, charter schools are developing successful educational reforms that can be used by every public school, charter and otherwise, to produce academic proficiency on the part of every child. These schools need to be supported and encouraged, and not become target practice for "hit-and-run" research operatives whose primary interest is to maintain the status quo in public education.

    Hovenic is president and chief executive officer of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce Foundation and executive director of the Foundation's Business Roundtable for Education. Comments regarding this column can be sent to

  • September 9, 2004

    September 21, 2004

    October 12, 2004