Reaction to Los Angeles Charter School Study Misses Bigger, Fundamental Point

David DorseyEducation

A wide-ranging study comparing the performance of students attending charter schools in Los Angeles to those attending traditional public schools (TPS) in L.A. was released last month by a group from the University of California, Berkeley. The researchers (the full report can be accessed here) tracked 66,000 students from 2007 through 2011, using state test data and information about students provided by the California Department of Education and L.A. Unified.

So, did charter schools outperform TPS? That depends.

According to the results:

  • At the middle school level, charters clearly outperformed TPS.
  • At the high school level there was no difference between charters and TPS.
  • At the elementary school level, charters either outperform TPS or do not, depending on the viewpoint.

Overall, the study concludes that students entering charter schools are higher achievers than those in TPS, but they also learn at a faster rate.

This study is of particular interest because the Los Angeles Unified School District is the nation’s second largest and also has the largest number of charter school attendees. The more than 100,000 charter school students comprise about 16% of the total student population. It is also timely because of a proposal by the Los Angeles-based philanthropic Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation to vastly expand charter schools in the district. The foundation’s plan is to raise $490 million in order to add 260 new charter schools over the next eight years. That expansion would allow half the students in the district to attend a charter school.

Predictably, both charter supporters and opponents have already used the study to strengthen their positions. Those who advocate for charters point to the higher test scores at middle school and their interpretation of the elementary school findings. Opponents continue to say charters perform no better because they essentially cherry-pick students. The report, however, does not support that assertion. “We are not suggesting that charter schools unfairly cherry-pick stronger students or more resourceful families,” said study co-author Bruce Fuller, professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley. “However, parents with more savvy or time seem more likely to seek out stronger schools.”

It is important to note that the Los Angeles teachers union is vehemently opposed to charters and their expansion. According to this L.A. Times article, the “L.A. teachers union…strongly oppose[s] the idea, saying it would lead to a massive loss of funding and students enrolled in traditional schools that could cripple L.A. Unified. And they have consistently asserted that the charters would leave behind students that are more expensive and more difficult to educate.” Translation: the more charter schools, the fewer union members. Most charter schools are non-union.

This is a particularly critical point in time for the teachers union (and public sector unions nationwide) because today the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing arguments in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. Rebecca Friedrichs, a high school government teacher in California, is challenging compulsory union membership as a violation of free speech. A win for Friedrichs would be a severe blow to unions in non-right-to-work states like California. A more than doubling the number of charter schools along with an unfavorable Supreme Court decision (expected in June) could render the L.A. teachers union feckless.

While it is certainly important to compare the performances of charter schools to TPS, a fundamental question gets lost in such an analysis.

Why charter schools?

In 1992, then-candidate Bill Clinton famously boiled his presidential campaign message down to this single, now famous, line: “It’s the economy, stupid.” – recognizing the struggling economy was the most important issue of the election.

A similar line is appropriate regarding education: It’s all about choice, stupid. The charter school movement, and all other choice efforts for that matter, is all about empowering students and families, giving them the opportunity to decide what kind of school is best for them. Opponents, especially teachers unions, continue to look through the eyeglass in reverse; they see the choice movement as a threat to their very existence, not one that is student centered.

Even the mainstream media, when trying to appreciate the value of charter schools, doesn’t get it. A recent L.A. Times editorial, while portraying charter schools in a positive vein, states that charter schools “could take steps to recruit more low-achieving students, to level the playing field between their schools and district schools.” School choice is not about organizational fairness, it’s about what’s doing right by kids.

Instead of wasting time debating charter vs. TPS, effort should be made to inform parents of choices so more can become “savvy,” using Professor Fuller’s word. The real impact of charters, and all school choice efforts for that matter, will come when a critical mass of parents choose alternative schools where the students come first. That will force the traditional public schools to become student-centered, making educational opportunity better for everyone.

After all, it’s all about choice.

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