NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


August 28, 2006

The Bush administration's desire to enlighten parents and taxpayers about alternatives to failing public schools is admirable.  But it'll have to do better than the misleading report issued last week by the federal Department of Education, which purports to show that charter schools trail traditional public schools in student achievement, says the Wall Street Journal.

The study claims to have taken family income into consideration, and that's important because a large number of charter schools cater to mostly low-income students.  But the use of federal-lunch program participation as a poverty indicator is problematic and likely skewed the results, says the Journal. 

According to the Center for Education Reform, a school choice advocacy group, as many as 1-in-4 charters nationwide would qualify for free- and reduced-lunch programs but don't take advantage of them.  Cost and bureaucratic red tape are two primary reasons.

For example:

  • To participate in a federal lunch program, a school must hire certified food service workers.
  • Many charters operating on tight budgets choose to use parents or volunteers in the cafeteria and steer their limited resources into the classroom.
  • By relying on a flawed proxy for poverty, the government's methodology penalizes this sort of efficiency.

It's also worth pointing out how little can be properly extrapolated about the quality of charter schools from a 2003 "snapshot" of fourth-grade reading and math scores.  The study tells us nothing about the students' prior or subsequent academic record.  Nor do we know how long the school had been open at the time or whether it's still in operation today, says the Journal.

Source: Editorial, "Charter School Nonsense," Wall Street Journal, August 28, 2006; and  "No Free Lunch - Study Wrongly Discredits Charter Success," Center for Education Reform, August 21, 2006.

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