The Charter Barter

We liberals like to flatter ourselves by proclaiming our allegiance to fact. In the immortal words of Stephen Colbert, for us, mere "truthiness" will not suffice. We demand evidence, research, science -- Truth itself.

But on so many of the social issues liberals care about, concrete fact is a rare commodity. Take education policy, a beat I've been covering for over two years. We know our schools aren't good enough: There is a dropout crisis among blacks and Latinos, colleges are forced to reteach algebra and basic essay writing, and classrooms are becoming more racially and socioecomically segregated. But beyond these observable trends, we can't agree on much. Liberals are in complete disagreement about how to fix American education, whether the topic is a national curriculum, standardized testing, or how to pay teachers.

That's what has made this topic so maddening -- and fascinating -- to cover. Consider charter schools, for example. The White House and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are infatuated with these experimental, privately managed public schools, and certain charters, like the nationwide network of KIPP schools, have had extraordinary success working with low-income, inner-city children. Charters currently educate less than 5 percent of American schoolchildren, but the Obama administration has vowed to raise that number. It is committing over $5 billion in stimulus funds to states and local school districts that agree to lift caps on the number of charter schools allowed to open in a year.

But education-policy experts are divided over whether charters, as a group, improve academic achievement. In the past six months, two high-profile studies of charter schools, both out of Stanford University, have attracted significant media attention. The first, a study of charter schools in 16 states conducted by CREDO, an education research group affiliated with the university, found that in math, only 17 percent of charters increase achievement over traditional public schools. The report's authors called the results "sobering."

The second, a close look at 75 New York City charter schools by education economist Caroline Hoxby, a Stanford professor and Hoover Institute fellow, couldn't have drawn a more disparate conclusion. Hoxby's study, comparing students who win charter school lotteries to those who lose them, found that New York charter students do 31 points better in math and 23 points better in English than their lottery-losing peers, who remain in neighborhood public schools.

In the aftermath of the Hoxby study's September release, the Stanford researchers engaged in a vicious back-and-forth. Hoxby published a memo calling CREDO's work "biased" because it did not use the lottery-in, lottery-out matching method and instead compared charter school students to their racially and socioeconomically similar peers in public schools. "That type of matching is not good enough," Hoxby told the Prospect. "If you can use lottery in/out it takes care of all these problems. The students are exactly matched on [parental] motivation" -- the motivation to apply to charters, which may be greater for parents who believe their child is especially at-risk academically. If more struggling students attend charters, as Hoxby contends, it would be unfair to expect their test scores to exceed that of public school kids across the board.

CREDO hit back, noting that many parents choose charters because they are safer and more orderly, not because they've done a sophisticated analysis of their child's learning needs. Indeed, that assumption fits with past research on parents and school choice. In Milwaukee, the city with the largest private school voucher program, students who used vouchers to attend parochial schools did no better on tests than their public school peers. Yet the voucher parents reported more satisfaction -- they were concerned with factors other than academic achievement.

What's more, though the editorial boards at the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and New York Daily News proclaimed Hoxby's study the last word on charter school effectiveness, it's important to remember that New York City is an outlier in education policy, as in all things. Not every charter school in America is so popular that students must enter a competitive lottery to be admitted. In fact, most are not selective at all. "We have lots and lots of highly popular charter schools in our larger sample," says CREDO Director Margaret Raymond. "But we also included lots of other schools -- typical schools across a wide number of communities."

Given their acrimonious exchange, you'd assume Hoxby and Raymond disagree completely about the direction of American education policy. But that's actually not the case. Both researchers support President Barack Obama's goal of lifting local charter school caps. Hoxby is a straightforward charter enthusiast, with a history of skepticism toward teachers' unions. But even CREDO's research shows that many states with strict caps, like New Mexico, have lower-quality charters, while those with freer laws, like Louisiana and Arkansas, have high-performing charters. "Both funders of start-ups and charter operators are not going to go into a market where they have no chance of growing," Raymond explains.

Still, caps are just one piece of the charter policy puzzle. Another is the question of which organizations should be allowed to act as charter managers, or CMOs. Proven education-focused nonprofits, such as KIPP or universities? Religious institutions? Parent groups? For-profit companies?

New York, where Hoxby found such remarkable achievement at charter schools, is relatively strict about who can run a school and regulates charter operators at the state, not the local district, level. Massachusetts has some of the most restrictive charter-authorizer laws in the country, and a January study found that in middle school math, Boston charters halve the achievement gap between black and white students. Unsurprisingly, there is a strong correlation between experienced CMOs and good results for kids. But the Department of Education has given states little specific direction on how to beef up their oversight of charter operators.

In short, as Debra Viadero reported in Education Week, the terrain of education research is far more complex and contested than the Obama administration acknowledges. Duncan's Education Department is pursuing a straightforward agenda of lifting charter caps, instituting teacher merit pay, and creating standardized national curricula and tests. There is promising social science on all of these policies. But there is also promising social science on policies the administration is not pursuing: using magnet schools and voluntary regional transfer programs to racially integrate classrooms and moving away from test-based accountability and toward portfolio systems, which better measure critical thinking, writing, and public speaking.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said the sign of a first-rate intelligence was the ability to consider two conflicting ideas while retaining the ability to function. I'd say the sign of first-rate public-policy thinking is the ability to consider a myriad amount of conflicting research, fairly assess its biases and flaws, and then create an agenda that can actually be implemented. On education -- and health care, poverty, and a host of other issues -- the Obama administration must play referee in heated debates among well-intentioned experts. Let's hope it is as serious about evidence as the Bush crowd was unserious, and resists falling sway to trends. With so much at stake, mere truthiness just won't do.

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