October 14, 2023

Valerie Strauss: Why what looked like good news for charter schools actually wasn’t

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Much has been written about this summer’s study of charter schools and its attempt to show that charters were getting superior results. At the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss has gathered much of the debunking in one place, and how that debunking mirrors the new position of charters as the part of the choice movement that’s being left behind.

It seemed like good news for charter schools when a study released this summer declared that they get better student outcomes than do traditional public schools — at least from 2015 to 2019, the years for which researchers said they crunched the numbers. The Wall Street Journal editorial board hailed the results as showing “huge learning gains over union schools” (with “union schools” used as a pejorative reference to public schools in traditional school districts). Education Week’s headline declared: “Charter Schools Now Outperform Traditional Public Schools, Sweeping Study Finds.”

But the study, it turned out, doesn’t show that at all. The headlines were wrong. For one thing, a close look at the results revealed only tiny improvements in charter schools. That, plus concerns critics have raised about the validity of the methodology and definitions used in the study, render moot the claims of besting traditional public schools.

The “not what they seem” theme of the study results reflect the uncertain position in which charter schools find themselves these days. The vanguard of the “school choice” movement when the first charter opened in 1992 in Minneapolis, these schools have been eclipsed in the national debate about “school choice” by programs that use public money for private and religious schools, including vouchers, tax credit programs and education savings accounts.

Meanwhile, the boost charter schools seemed to get from the student results wasn’t authentic. The June study was the third in a series started in 2009 by CREDO, or the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, which was founded at the University of Rochester by Margaret “Macke” Raymond and her husband, Eric Hanushek, an economist. In 2000, they moved CREDO to Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank that supports charter schools and school choice, according to CREDO’s 2001 annual report, giving it more “institutional credibility.” Raymond, who directs CREDO, is a research fellow and scholar at Hoover. Raymond still directs CREDO, which is funded in large part by foundations and individuals who have spent millions of dollars supporting charter schools.

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