Posted on August 24, 2004

The Charter Difference

Rep. John Boehner, National Review Online, Aug. 23

With some help from the New York Times, big teacher unions last week launched an all-out attack on America’s charter schools. The victims, if the attack succeeds, are likely to be our nation’s most disadvantaged minority children.

For decades, our nation has been grappling with a sad reality: Too many minority children aren’t learning. A major achievement gap exists in our schools between disadvantaged minority children and their more affluent peers.

Massive spending increases haven’t dented the problem. The solution is reform and accountability, and charter schools are part of that solution.

Unlike regular public schools, which are dominated by teachers unions whose lobbyists sneer at accountability behind closed doors, charter schools are accountable. As their name implies, they have “charters” that can be revoked by their states if they fail at their missions.

Where some public schools steer clear of students with learning challenges, charter schools embrace them. This is why President Bush strongly supports them. Charter schools welcome the toughest of the tough; the students who have fallen through the cracks in the traditional public education system and are most in danger of being left behind. Most charter schools serve high concentrations of minority children, particularly African-American children.

The New York Times recently gave front-page treatment to an American Federation of Teachers (AFT) study “revealing” that charter schools last year reported student test scores that were substantially lower than those reported by union-run schools in more affluent areas that serve much fewer minority students. Charter schools are “lagging behind,” the Times headline announced. Lagging behind whom?

Brandishing the AFT report, the Times ticked off a series of dismal scores showing charter schools falling short of their traditional counterparts in key subjects such as reading and math. But the Times didn’t bother to note that the data—which the administration warned was limited and incomplete—had not been adjusted to account for the fact that charter schools serve a much higher population of minority students than regular, suburban schools.

As it turns out, when one makes this adjustment, there is virtually no difference between the scores of charter schools and those of traditional public schools. The only schools charter schools are “lagging behind” are schools that serve significantly fewer minority students.

In fact, the fine print of the teachers’ union’s own report acknowledges this.

“Compared to their peers in regular public schools, black and Hispanic charter school students scored lower both in math and reading in grade 4, but the differences were not statistically significant,” the AFT report acknowledges. “The achievement gaps between white and black students and between white and Hispanic students were about the same in charter schools as in regular public schools.”

The scores don’t support the insinuation that charter schools are inferior to public schools when it comes to educating minority students. They merely reinforce what we already know: disadvantaged minority students in America—regardless of the kind of schools they attend—are far behind their peers academically.

What truly differentiates charter schools from regular schools at this early point is that charter schools are welcoming these tough students, and can ultimately be held accountable later if they don’t do the job. Lobbying organizations such as the AFT and the so-called National Education Association (NEA) are spending millions to fight President Bush’s efforts to make regular schools subject to similar accountability.

“It is unfortunate, though entirely predictable, that the AFT, an organization on record for over two years for the need for a moratorium on charter schools, would stoop so low as to brand schools guilty of little else than working with low achieving students as underperforming regular public schools,” said John E. Chubb, a member of the Hoover Institution’s Koret Task Force on K-12 Education.

How would the scores of traditional, high-minority schools have looked last year if charter schools hadn’t taken some of our nation’s most challenged students off their hands? In providing options for at-risk students and their parents, charter schools are relieving some of the burden on regular public schools and allowing students in both settings an opportunity to succeed.

The problem isn’t that charter schools are “lagging behind;” the problem is that minority children in America are lagging behind. The achievement gap in American education must be closed, and it won’t be closed without strong support for our nation’s innovative charter schools.

Rep. John Boehner (R., Ohio) is chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Education & the Workforce.