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The New York Times

 

Classes Of Last Resort

August 19, 2004

By Floyd H. Flake

The United States Olympic basketball team’s gold medal hopes would be significantly diminished if it were forced to shoot at a rim that was 11 feet high rather than 10 feet like its competition’s. The gold might well end up in Lithuania—but would this mean that the winning team from Vilnius was better on the court than the Americans? Of course not. Rather, it would establish that in an unfair competitive environment, people and institutions with real advantages will normally win.

This is precisely the standard that critics apply in comparing public education’s two main forms: traditional schools and charter schools. The most recent example is a number—crunching exercise of federal school statistics by the largest teachers’ union, the American Federation of Teachers.

While the analysis showed charter schools lagging somewhat behind traditional schools in reading and math, it did not contain any explanation of the structural inequities between the two that leave charter schools at a permanent disadvantage. Given time and a level playing field, I have no doubt that for many students, especially those in impoverished urban neighborhoods, charter schools will prove to be an academic lifeline.

So how to explain the current statistics? First, while charter schools often receive the same per—student financing as traditional schools, their student body is typically not the same. The federal statistics show that charter students are much more likely to be non—white, eligible for free lunch programs and residents of central cities. Critics will point out that when the statistics are adjusted for race and income level, the traditional schools still have a slight edge in most statistics—but this line of thinking ignores how much harder it is for schools with vastly higher percentages of poor and minority students to succeed.

Second, charter schools have to be built up from scratch; at the time the statistics were gathered most were only a few years old. Think about it: in addition to the normal challenges facing all schools, charter school administrators are forced to become finance wizards, real estate gurus and city building—code specialists. What they do not know about they have to contract out, which costs money that in turn never makes it to classrooms. In most traditional public school models, principals are primarily concerned about building conditions; charter school principals have to worry about whether a building even exists at all. This will change in time.

In addition, principals are their own “downtown,” or central board of education. They must negotiate contracts with bus companies, food service vendors, textbook publishers and after—school providers. Again, as time passes, many will become more adept at these peripheral issues.

Another reason for charter schools’ struggles is that many of their students have already been badly damaged by traditional public schools. They are the option of last resort: families that have left traditional public education did so because they watched firsthand as their children lost ground. Should schools dealing with these most fragile students be compared to public schools as a whole?

And in the end, are these statistics really so damning? After 100 years, and with all of the conveniences and advantages they enjoy, the teachers’ unions and traditional schools have only 30 percent of 4th graders reading and doing math at grade level. After just a few years, charter school students are slightly worse, at 25 percent. No, neither standard is acceptable—but the first number is a strong argument for allowing parents to sample charter schools and other innovative options.

Unfortunately, the professional advocates for public education are trying to block that choice. They send lobbyists to Washington and their state capitals to ask for levels of funding for charter schools that they would find intolerable in other areas of public education.

I applaud the Education Department’s bureaucratic fervor in assessing charter school performance. All schools should be held to high standards and face severe punishment for failing to make the grade. Charter schools ushered in an era of higher accountability: low—performing charters face ultimate judgment, including being closed. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for all traditional schools yet.

The next time critics want to examine data, they should ask the 600,000 families that have conducted their own studies—ones in which their children’s futures are on the line. When they chose charter schools they might not have had access to scholarly research, but they chose what they believed was best for their children. That ought to count for more than the expertise of some dispassionate researchers and union bosses trying desperately to preserve their monopoly.

Original Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/08/19/opinion/19flak.html

 

 
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