Leader Blues

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

EDITORIAL>> Charter schools are failing

It is the policy in Arkansas as it is in Washington to expand charter schools, the semi-private schools that operate with public funds and with few binding restraints. But somehow we have come to expect bad news whenever the state Board of Education meets to license these little schools.

Here and there, a charter school is doing a good job, but on the whole the schools are a giant bust. That is the evidence across the country, and our admittedly meager experience in Arkansas does not encourage their growth.

President Bush is a big proponent of charter schools — and private and religious schools, too. The No Child Left Behind Act, the big federal school overhaul of 2001, anticipates that public schools that fail to meet the lofty federal standards will be converted to charter schools. Gov. Huckabee favors them, too, but he hasn’t pushed them aggressively. His state Board of Education has been stingy in granting charter school licenses and state aid, although still not chary enough for us.

Charter schools are supposed to succeed because they are freed from most of the restrictions and standards that govern public schools. No one ever answered one question to our satisfaction: If standards were bad for the kids, why not lift them for the public schools, too? Oh, well.

Monday the Board of Education renewed the charter of the Imboden Area Charter School for another year and postponed action on a fresh charter for the Haas Hall Academy in Farmington, a high school on the outskirts of Fayetteville. Haas doesn’t offer the array of courses that public schools must offer. Its enrollment has fallen from 40 to 13. That’s some high school we’re paying for. It is funded with state dollars.

Little Imboden up in northeast Arkansas might be doing a pretty good job. No one could say for sure how its children are faring after three years. It is supposed to raise achievement levels by 10 percent a year — that is the purpose of charter schools — but the state Board of Education could not figure out whether the school had met that test. It approved the charter anyway, with one dissent. Imboden has 47 children in six grades, about seven or eight per grade.

The director of the school said the very small classes, which make individual instruction possible, were the key to the school’s success, which she said was apparent in spite of unspectacular results on the Arkansas Benchmark Exam, the test Arkansas gives students to show they are meeting the demands of No Child Left Behind and Arkansas law.

There is so much that is important that is not measured by that exam, she said.
She’s right on both counts. The test — no single test — can measure the extent of a child’s growth or failure. And small class sizes in preschool through the fourth grade do make a dramatic difference. That is one educational issue that has been settled. But if small classes are good for a charter school, why aren’t they good for public schools? Of course, they are. The big study commissioned by the legislature in 2003 concluded that sharply lowering K-4 class sizes would do more than anything else to reverse school fortunes in Arkansas. But Gov. Huckabee and the legislature concluded that it would be too costly. Instead, give charter schools the money to do it.

Other states are lowering class sizes. Florida voters ordered it done by an initiated act. Gov. Jeb Bush last week gave up on getting the Republican legislature to roll back that requirement, which he said was too expensive. He’s a big proponent of charter and private schools.

The national research on charter schools is even more compelling. The president’s education director commissioned a study that compared the achievement in charter schools with that of those attending public schools in five states. But the study did not turn out right. The Education Department finally released it, but then said its own study was insignificant and people shouldn’t pay it any attention.

The study concluded that charter schools were less likely to meet state performance standards than traditional public schools. In Texas, 98 percent of public schools met state performance standards, but only 66 percent of charter schools did. Even when adjusted for race and poverty, the charter schools fell short by a statistically significant amount. Of course, we have learned that many Texas schools were fudging by doctoring test results and excusing thousands of low-achieving students from the test. We can’t be sure if the charter schools were following the same agenda.

It’s time to shut down this costly experiment.