- The Washington Times - Friday, August 20, 2004

Education Secretary Rod Paige this week denounced a teachers union’s report that says charter school students perform worse academically than their counterparts in regular public schools.

Mr. Paige said a 26-page American Federation of Teachers (AFT) report “used faulty methodology to come up with a flawed conclusion [that] was wrong.”

“Differences between charter and regular public schools in achievement test scores vanish when examined by race or ethnicity,” Mr. Paige said.

The AFT report acknowledged in an executive summary: “The achievement gaps between white and black students and between white and Hispanic students were about the same in charter schools as in regular public schools.”

The report said fourth- and eighth-graders at charter schools — independently run public schools free from many restrictions — performed worse on 2003 math and reading tests administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) than regular public school students.

The test results show just 25 percent of fourth-graders attending charters were proficient in reading and math, against 30 percent who were proficient in reading, and 32 percent in math, at traditional public schools.

“Unfairly comparing charter schools to regular public schools punishes them for reaching out to the disadvantaged students that the regular public schools have most often failed,” said Jay P. Greene, senior education fellow at the Manhattan Institute in New York City, considered a leading researcher of charter schools and voucher programs.

The New York Times, which exclusively received the AFT report Tuesday, concluded in an editorial that the NAEP results, which have been posted on the Education Department’s Web site throughout this year, had delivered “a devastating setback” to the Bush administration’s national education program to improve student achievement.

Not so, said Harvard University education policy researchers William G. Howell, Paul E. Peterson and Martin R. West, in a Wall Street Journal column Wednesday.

“These results could indicate nothing other than the simple fact that charter schools are typically asked to serve problematic students in low-performing districts with many poor, minority children,” the Harvard researchers said.

Rep. John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican and chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said not all the nation’s 3,000-plus charter schools “are perfect, but many are doing exceptional work.” In total, they educate about 700,000 of the country’s 50 million students.

“Charter schools are taking predominantly minority students who were falling behind or were not succeeding in the traditional public schools. In providing options for these students and their families, they are relieving some of the burden on regular public schools and allowing students in both settings to succeed,” Mr. Boehner said.

There is little argument on that point between the two major political parties in Congress. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic presidential candidate, has called for creation of more charter schools.

Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican and chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said he was disappointed in the AFT report’s emphasis that charter students were lagging behind public school students in traditional settings.

“It is at best a conclusion drawn from incomplete information and at worst an intentional attempt to tarnish these innovative institutions as part of a larger political agenda,” Mr. Gregg said.

Chester E. Finn, Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and formerly assistant secretary of education for President Reagan, said the “one-time snapshot data of a single cohort of kids, which is all that NAEP can supply the first time around, tell you nothing about the academic achievement of children before they entered their charter schools. …

“[J]ust about everyone knows that a big fraction of the youngsters enrolling in charters were already behind the education eight-ball as a result of dismal performance in previous schools.”

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