WITH A PROCLAMATION by President George W. Bush and a series of visits by federal education officials, charter schools enjoyed a week of national attention in May, celebrating their supporters' claim that they can be more effective than other public schools in boosting student achievement.
"Charter schools are raising the bar about what's possible-and what should be expected-in public education," said Nelson Smith, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, at a media briefing in Washington during "National Charter Schools Week" May 1-5.
But others in the educational community are not so sure. And as expected, those who promote positive highlights over charters lie along charter supporters, or those in the president's camp, and those who highlight the negative tend to be charter opponents, such as union leaders and more Democrats. The American Federation of Teachers is sticking by a study it reported last November showing that charter school students in 2005, on average, scored the same or lower in almost every comparison with other public school students.
The study used the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress to compare student achievement in charter schools and other public schools. A NAEP pilot study of charter schools' achievement in 2003 had shown that in most cases, charter school students were not performing as well as other public school students. In every case, the percentage of fourth and eighth graders in the roughly 390 charter schools scoring at or above basic level in reading and math in 2003 and 2005 was below typical pubic school students in about 30,400 schools.
And the 2005 results revealed no significant changes. "Charter schools generally are about the same or slightly worse than the regular public schools," says Larry Feinberg, assistant director for reporting and analysis at the National Assessment Governing Board, which authorized the NAEP study.
Unlike 2003, the board did not publicly release the 2005 results for "political reasons," according to a government official who did not want to be identified, because the findings failed to show hoped-for improvement over the initial study. AFT released them in its report, which Feinberg confirmed was accurate.
At the media briefing and through other activities, charter school supporters tried to paint a more promising picture. Fourteen years after the charter movement began, NAPCS issued a "report card" underscoring, as Smith said, that "the charter model of partnership, flexibility and accountability fosters student achievement."
The NAPCS report highlights five urban areas-Buffalo, N.Y., Chicago, Indianapolis, New York City, and Washington, D.C. In all of them, charter schools outperform traditional public schools and often rival the highest-performing schools in surrounding suburban school districts.
In Chicago, for example, where 22 charter schools serve 15,000 students, charters outperformed comparable neighborhood schools in 2003-2004 on 79 percent of relative student performance measures including test scores, attendance rates and graduation rates, according to the Chicago Public Schools.
In the nation's capital, a hotbed of charter school activity, charters outperform non-charter schools in reading and math on the most recent national assessments, according to NAPCS. In Washington, 51 charter schools serve almost 18,000 students-25 percent of all the city's public school students.
Without citing specific cities or states, AFT disputes the contention of charter advocates that charters make a difference in student achievement. "As an education initiative that is demanding tremendous resources and effort ... we would hope that the results would be improved achievement, and it is disappointing that we're not seeing that," says Nancy Van Meter, director of AFT's Center on Accountability and Privatization.
But in his proclamation, Bush said charter schools "reflect our belief in the promise of America's youth and help fulfill our moral obligation to make sure that every child has a quality education."
More than 3,600 charters currently serve more than one million students across 40 states and the District of Columbia and thousands more students are on waiting lists, according to NAPCS. Most charter students are disadvantaged children from low-income, inner-city families, which means many of them have a lower academic standing than some other public school students.
But barriers, including caps on charter school growth in 25 states and the District of Columbia, are blocking the movement's expansion. Eight states had reached their caps at the beginning of the 2005-06 school year and two others were expected to reach their limits during the year.
NAPCS is calling on state policy makers to lift the caps and open more charter schools, and some states are taking steps to allow new charters or improve the ones they have. In South Carolina, Gov. Mark Sanford signed legislation in May to create a statewide charter school district. It gives charter organizers more options in trying to win approval to open new schools.
In Massachusetts, a consulting firm commissioned by the state Department of Education presented a plan early this year to create a technical assistance and resource center for charter schools. "Our work is far from over," Smith declared at the Washington briefing.