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Debate over charter schools gets going

It looks like the debate over charter schools is picking up. Last Sunday, the New York Times published a front-page feature on charter schools. It is the first major article I can think of that was critical of charter schools.

The article noted that the charter school “movement” has the support of philanthropists (Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Walton family) and celebrities (the singers John Legend and Sting had recently “performed at a fund-raiser for Harlem charter schools at Lincoln Center”). It also has the backing of President Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan. And yet...

But for all their support and cultural cachet, the majority of the 5,000 or so charter schools nationwide appear to be no better, and in many cases worse, than local public schools when measured by achievement on standardized tests, according to experts citing years of research.

With all the money, technology, facilities, and other advantages charter schools have over public schools (while at the same time receiving public funding), plus the self-selection by motivated parents and students, I would have guessed that performance would be better among the charter schools, but that’s not the case.

It is probably Diane Ravitch’s critique of the school-choice movement (contained in her new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System) that is prompting more critical coverage, like the Times piece. Given the wide consensus in support charter schools – from conservatives to the Obama administration – I expected to start to see some responses in defense of charter schools. And sure enough, in today’s Times, there is one, in the form of an op-ed by Charles Murray.

Murray takes an interesting tack. He argues that “standardized test scores are a terrible way to decide whether one school is better than another”. Instead, the ability for parents to choose should be considered a benefit in itself:

If my fellow supporters of charter schools and vouchers can finally be pushed off their obsession with test scores, maybe we can focus on the real reason school choice is a good idea. Schools differ in what they teach and how they teach it, and parents care deeply about both, regardless of whether test scores rise....

Let’s use the money we are already spending on education in a way that gives those parents the same kind of choice that wealthy people, liberal and conservative alike, exercise right now. That should be the beginning and the end of the argument for school choice.

I would agree that test scores do not fully encompass the quality of education. But Murray’s argument that performance doesn’t matter is hard to accept: if charter schools are no better or worse in terms of quality, then why go to all the effort? Would parents participate in the school-choice programs if they didn’t think the educational quality was higher?

School choice is an interesting debate, but leave it to Diane Ravitch to put it in perspective. As she says in the Times article, “Charters enroll 3 percent of the kids. The system that educates 97 percent, no one’s paying any attention to.” Don’t expect John Legend and Sting to hold a concert at Lincoln Center for these 97 percent (they'll have make do with bake sales and auctions).

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