by David Safier
The Star has an article this morning about Arizona school districts converting some of their schools to charters. The reason districts are doing this is simple. A district charter school gets $1,000 more per student than its other schools. With Arizona schools underfunded by thousands of dollars per student compared to schools in most states, it's no surprise districts are taking advantage of the extra funding that flows to charters.
The article is pretty good, but it contains one howler -- not from the reporter Jamar Younger but from Eileen Sigmund, president of the Arizona Charter Schools Association, the well funded cheerleader for charters in the state. She warns districts that there are certain expectations and standards they need to meet if they plan to open charter schools.
"The reason we have charters is to improve student achievement and provide parents a choice," she said. "A charter is a contract to improve student achievement."
In 25 words, she manages to say that charters "improve student achievement" twice. Really? The truth is, if traditional public schools want their charters to be the educational equivalent of those touted by Sigmund, they'll have to lower student achievement by 10%. That figure comes from a recent Stanford study saying Arizona's charter school students lag behind similar students in traditional public schools by 22 days per year in reading and 29 days per year in math. By my calculations, that's more than a 10% difference.
The national numbers in the Stanford study give charters a slim edge over traditional public schools in reading: the equivalent of 8 days extra instruction, about 4%. The study finds no discernable difference in math. When you break the national numbers down, charters outperform traditional public schools in 11 states and underperform in 8 states. In the rest of the states, it's a wash. Once again, as has been pointed out in numerous studies, similar students do about the same in charters as they do in traditional public schools.
If the conservative "education reform" cheerleaders say "charters are better" often enough (BASIS! Look at BASIS! Did I mention BASIS?), it sounds like it's true, and the media dutifully repeats the claim. But it ain't so. There are good charters, mediocre charters and bad charters, just like traditional public schools, and the good ones haven't found a way to replicate themselves with any degree of success. If you're looking for a magic bullet to cure education's woes, don't look to Eileen Sigmund and her Arizona Charter Schools Association. Their schools aren't getting the job done any better than anyone else.
CHARTER/TRADITIONAL SCHOOL FUNDING NOTE: The question of which type of school is better funded is hotly debated, and the numbers are difficult to sort through. The best numbers I've seen tell me, when it comes to the amount of money that flows to the education of the median student, it's pretty much a wash.
MAGIC BULLET NOTE: If you're looking for a magic bullet to cure our education ills, you're going to be duped and disappointed again and again and again (See: Snake oil salesmen). There is not now, nor (in my opinion) will there ever be a magic educational bullet. It's better to look for ways to improve things incrementally, both by improving pedagogy in the schools and by improving the societal inequities which have more to do with academic achievement than anything that happens inside the school walls.