The first comprehensive study of the nation's charter schools was published recently by the Center for Research and Educational Outcomes at Stanford University. The findings make it clear that students in traditional public schools do as well academically or surpass their charter school counterparts. According to the study of charter school students, 37 percent scored significantly lower in reading and math than similar students in traditional public schools; 46 percent were comparable to the local public schools; and 17 percent showed better results than students in the traditional schools. The study, funded in part by pro-charter supporters, is a setback for one of the most popular trends in education today. But many of the problems charter schools are experiencing appear to have available remedies - and the most important of these is establishing national standards for such schools.
Since the first U.S. charter school opened in Minnesota in 1991, the movement has grown to 4,700 schools enrolling 1.4 million children in 40 states and the District of Columbia. In 2003, Maryland became the most recent state to approve charter legislation; today it has 36 charter schools. President Barack Obama plans to double the dollars available to charters, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is asking all states to be open to charter schools, warning that those who resist risk losing out on federal funds.
Theoretically, charter schools are free of the red tape and regulations governing other public schools, offer a quality education, and are held accountable for improving student achievement.
It is charter schools' ability to develop specialized programs targeting specific populations that provided the bright spot in the Stanford report. Charters proved more successful than traditional schools in reaching English language learners and students in poverty. Some of the best examples of programs that work are happening in Baltimore, where 27 charter schools serve more than 5,000 students - an increase of almost 89 percent in the past three years. Baltimore middle school students seem to be thriving in charter schools that have longer days, a longer school year and smaller class size. In addition, Baltimore's charter schools have higher rates of attendance and lower suspension rates than noncharters.
But even successful charter schools sometimes attract controversy. Baltimore middle school students at the KIPP Ujima Village Academy have been making impressive gains on state assessment tests. Unfortunately, as was reported this week, the Baltimore Teachers Union, which had allowed KIPP teachers to work a longer school day and a longer school year, is no longer willing to grant that flexibility. The school is reducing staff and shortening its school day as a result.
The larger issue is that most students served by charters, on average, do worse than the same students in traditional schools. Some of the reasons the report gives for this poor showing include the first year effect, the impact of multiple chartering agencies and legislative caps.
With charters opening at such a rapid pace, much of the data are skewed toward newer (first year) students, who perform worse than a traditional public school student. However, this outcome is reversed if a student remains in a charter for three or more years. Improved planning and staff training can also mitigate this effect. Additionally, charter schools in states with multiple authorizers showed negative results in student performance, suggesting that new school applicants picked the authorizing agency that was most accommodating. Here, the authors recommended national performance standards that would apply to all charter schools regardless of approving agencies.
Finally, 26 states have adopted some type of legislative cap on the number of charter schools. These limits send a negative signal to successful applicants who may then turn to less-restrictive states. Mr. Duncan has called for an end to these caps.
Polls show charter schools are very popular. Supporters, who have experienced great success in opening schools and increasing the numbers of students, must now focus the same effort on ensuring that schools measure up to their promise of improving student achievement. The Stanford study presents a foundation on which this work can begin.
Policymakers around the country are taking a hard look at how public dollars are being spent. The governor of Ohio recently proposed deep cuts in charter school funding. According to Education Week, critics of the Ohio charter system charge it was not set up with the proper oversight and accountability.
As Mr. Duncan recently noted, "The charter movement is putting itself at risk by allowing too many second-rate and third-rate operators to exist. Charter operators need to do a better job of holding schools accountable - or people will, by leaving."
James Campbell is a member of the Baltimore City School Board and works as a senior communications manager at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.