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Charter School Performance Versus Charter School Accountability

Posted: 2005-11-17

Short and sweet, Bracey provides a definitive message: Charter school performance has in most states not lived up to billing. And he provides fascinating discussion of why achievement is no longer the chief concern.

Initially, the popularity of charter schools grew out of disappointment with the perceived performance of regular public schools, a performance often characterized in the popular media as ?dismal.? Charter proponents promised higher achievement; and in state after state, the first purpose listed in charter school legislation was ?to improve student learning.? Public schools were held accountable by compliance, advocates argued, but charter schools would be held accountable by performance. Charter school promoter Joe Nathan stated the charter position forcefully: ?Hundreds of charter schools have been created around this nation by educators who are willing to put their jobs on the line to say ?If we can?t improve student achievement, close down our school.' This is accountability?clear specific and real? (Nathan, 1996).

A decade after Nathan?s statement, one would have to add, ?and virtually nonexistent.? Charter school performance has in most states not lived up to billing. For example, in 2005 the state of Ohio placed 60 % of its charters in ?Academic Emergency,? its lowest rating (Oplinger, 2005). The 60 % figure is up from 41 % in 2004. Forty-five percent of Texas charter teachers leave each year?hardly a situation to induce enhanced achievement in itself. Less experienced, less educated teachers replace them (in Texas, charter school teachers need not have a college degree) (Embry, 2005). A national study of charters by the U. S. Department of Education using the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found charters underperforming public schools?20 of 22 outcomes favored the publics (NCES, 2004a). One outcome favored charters by a single point, and one was a tie. Yet charters continue to open and rarely shut down. The question would have to be, Why?

The answer appears to be in part that those who advocate charters no longer consider achievement a relevant outcome. At the USED press conference releasing the NAEP charter data then deputy secretary of education Eugene Hickok said, ?We are big fans of charter schools.? ?We? being USED. Given the data that Hickok was presiding over, the question again would have to be, Why?

The administration?s position on charters appears to reflect an attitude of, ?anything is better than the regular public schools. Charters are not regular public schools. QED, charters are good.? This mind-set of the Bush education department reflects the more general animus the administration feels towards government. As noted by Washington Post columnist, Sebastian Mallaby, ?What Bush really believes is that government is ineffective. . . . leaving money in private hands is intrinsically superior? (Mallaby, 2005). Large sums of money for three large administration projects?the war in Iraq, the Katrina clean-up, and No Child Left Behind?have been distributed to private corporations (Bracey, 2005). Recall, too, that in the original plan for No Child Left Behind, after a school failed to make AYP for three consecutive years, children received vouchers to attend private schools. Congress found vouchers unacceptable and in the final bill Supplementary Educational Services replaced them.

This attitude applies to ?government schools,? as public schools are commonly called by Milton Friedman and his acolytes. To the statement, ?But charters are public schools,? one could respond, ?for many, in funding only and in the requirement that students take the state tests.? Given the widespread bashing of public schools, would the ardent advocates display such zeal for their cause if they truly viewed the charters merely as public schools, rather than as alternatives?

The administration?s antipublic schools attitude runs sufficiently deep that some sustain it even when confronted with a contrary reality. At the same press conference, Hickok said ?Charters that don?t work get shut down.? Yet, just a few months earlier, Hickok received a contrary final report from a charter study his office had commissioned. That report concluded

Charter schools rarely face sanctions (revocation or nonrenewal). Furthermore, authorizing bodies impose sanctions on charter schools because of problems related to compliance with regulation and school finances, rather than student performance. (emphases and parentheses in the original, NCES, 2004b)

It is worth noting that the U. S. Department of Education released the charter school information six months after the final report was delivered and only after the New York Times filed a Freedom of Information Act request.

The authors of The Charter School Dust-Up affirmed the report?s contention: They estimated that only 0.6 % of charters had been closed for academic reasons (Carnoy et al., 2005). Dust-Up also affirmed that charter schools do not outperform public schools as had been promised nor could their low performance be ascribed to their enrolling the ?disadvantaged of the disadvantaged.? Indeed, for one of the most visible charter chains, KIPP Academies, interviews with teachers indicated that they referred to KIPP mostly able students who came from intact families and whose parents were unusually involved in the school (Carnoy et al., 2005, p. 58).

The events that led to Dust-Up illuminate the dynamics surrounding charter schools. At the request of charter school activist and former chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board Chester Finn, NAEP had included a sample of charter schools in its 2003 assessment of fourth grade reading and mathematics. Despite his central role in producing the study, Finn (2004) condemned it and then condemned the authors of Dust-Up: ?Everybody affiliated with this project yearns to dance on the grave of charter schools. . . . ? (Finn, 2005).

The study?s results are those listed in the second paragraph of this essay. Although the results of the regular NAEP assessment appeared on the USED website in early fall 2003, by the of summer 2004 the charter data was still untouched. At that point, the American Federation of Teachers researchers analyzed the data and the New York Times reported the AFT?s results on August 17, 2004 (with its hand forced, USED ?released? the same data in December (NCEs, 2004a).

For those persons referred to repeatedly (32 times) in Dust-Up as ?charter school zealots,? the Times article induced a collective nervous breakdown. Over the next two days they flooded newspapers with op-ed articles. Some 31 academics then signed a full-page ad in the New York Times (cost: in excess of $125,000, born by the Center for Education Reform) attacking the AFT?s analysis and the Times? coverage as not meeting appropriate standards for educational research and reporting.

This action seemed peculiar not only because it was bizarre (no other word fits so well) but because a number of the signatories? own research did not attain the standards they now held out as requisite. Indeed, some of them?Jay P. Greene, Paul Peterson, and Caroline Hoxby?had first made some of their data public in what Slate magazine once called a ?viper?s nest of Right Wing vitriol??the Wall Street Journal op-ed page. Few of these studies have ever been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

It is unfortunate that the charter movement has been captured by the anything?s-better-than-public-schools camp. It is possible that charters could improve achievement although it is doubtful that they could ever live up to their early promises to be ?laboratories of innovation? (in part because parents often take a not-with-my-child-you-don?t attitude towards radical changes from the traditional school [Arsen et al., 1999]).

Miron (2005) has limned what he feels are the conditions for charter success: rigorous approval process, rigorous oversight, provision of technical assistance, slow growth, bipartisan support, and financial support?some early charter advocates promised higher achievement with less money, a promise not kept. Miron?s analysis found that private management of charters produced no better results than public oversight.

Unfortunately, the probability of success is maximized by having these conditions in place from the beginning, not added after years of shoddy practices. Among states with statewide evaluations, they appear to have been installed early only in Connecticut and Delaware which have only 14 and 13 charters respectively.

Although the backers of charters often cloud their reality with ideological lenses, what about the public? It would seem that the public has simply been hoodwinked. Charters were born of an outrage at the performance of public schools. Although most charters have assets that most public schools do not?small size and small classes?in most evaluations charters have underperformed public schools. Where, then, is the outrage over charters? low scores?


Arsen, D., Plank, D., & Sykes, G., (1999). School choice policies in Michigan: The rules matter. East Lansing: Michigan State University.

Bracey G. W. (2005). No child left behind: Where does the money go? Tempe, AZ: Education Policy Studies Laboratory, Arizona State University.

Carnoy, M., Jacobsen, R., Mishel, L., & Rothstein, R. (2005). The charter school dust-up: Examining evidence on enrollment and achievement. Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute and New York: Teachers College Press.

Embry, J. (2005, 17 April). Charter schools struggle to keep staff, Austin American Statesman, p. A1.

Finn, C. E., (2004, 19 August). Defaming charters. New York Post, www.wacharterschools.org/news/editorials/2004-08-19_NYP.htm.

Finn, C. E. (2005, 21 April). ?From Checker?s desk,? Education Gadfly, Retrieved September 21, 2005 from


Mallaby, S. (2005, 19 September). ?Whatever it costs.? Washington Post, p. A17.

Miron, G., (2005). Strong charter school laws result in positive outcomes. Paper presented at the annual convention of the American Educational Research Association, Montreal, April 11-15, 2005. Miron defines strong charter school laws as those that produce positive outcomes. This is in contrast to most charter advocates who define strong laws as those which impose the fewest requirements and restrictions.

Nathan, J. (1996). Charter schools: Creating hope and opportunity for American education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). (2004a, December). America?s charter schools: Results from the NAEP 2003 pilot study. Washington, DC: NCES 2005-456.

National Center for Education Statistics(MCES). (2004b). Evaluation of the public charter schools program: Final report. Washington, DC: Office of the Deputy Secretary, U. S. Department of Education. Report No. 2004-08.

Oplinger, D. (2005, 17 August). Charter schools take a step back. Akron Beacon Journal, p. A1.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 04, 2005

http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12203

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