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Studies support charter schools' performance

By Jim Waters At issue Recent articles about charter schools

Charter schools might not offer a magic pill that can cure all of Kentucky's public education ailments. However, it's tough to ignore the growing amount — and credibility — of evidence that charter schools offer opportunity for change that could transform the lives of many of Kentucky's neediest students.

The charter concept has existed for only 20 years. So opponents for a long time often claimed charter schools lacked proven success.

But parental attitudes are changing. Parents of children in underperforming schools throughout the country are increasingly taking advantage of charter schools. More than 1.5 million students now attend 5,000 charter schools in the United States.

Critics have drawn on a charter-challenged public to convince reform-illiterate legislators and the media that charters represent "uppity" private schools that threaten public education. But residents and many legislators who represent them are "learning" the truth:

■ Charter schools are publicly funded schools managed in a way that gives many students falling through the cracks of traditional public schools a chance to avoid welfare rolls, street corners, prisons or worse.

■ These schools often do it for 33 percent to 50 percent of the cost of their public school counterparts, and in schools with Taj Mahal facilities that lack costly bells and whistles.

But you can't always judge a school by its facilities. And you also can't ascertain charter-school success by listening to fear mongering.

Mary Ann Blankenship, executive director of the Kentucky Education Association, recently wrote in her KEA News column: "Research by Stanford University shows that most students in charter schools perform about the same or worse than similar students in regular schools."

Blankenship wasn't the only one to jump on the study conducted in June 2009 by Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcome. But she joined many embarrassed by data found deeper in the report: Students in charter schools for at least three years outperformed their peers in traditional schools. They closed gaping academic-achievement chasms between black and white students.

One of the problems with Stanford's first study involved a flaw in its student sample: 60 percent of the national sample was first-year students. Like any remedy for a long-standing illness, charters take time, and the first Stanford study showed that.

Blankenship wrote that charters were "an unproven strategy."

Ironically, Blankenship wrote that in January — about the same time a second Stanford report focused on the performance of charter schools in New York City.

The respected Education Week publication summarized the second report: "On a school-by-school basis, 51 percent of New York City charter schools are producing academic gains in math for students that are statistically larger than students would have achieved in regular public schools."

Education Week also reported: "Black and Hispanic students (in New York City), as well as struggling learners, do better on average in charter schools than they would have in their regular public schools."

Look at KIPP Academy Nashville: "The average fifth-grader begins two grades below the national averages," stated a recent report on the charter school by Paducah's WPSD-TV. But KIPP Academy Nashville doesn't close the gap with magic.

Students attend school until 5 p.m. each weekday, on Saturdays and during the summer. Is it any wonder that more than 90 percent of these students scored "advanced" or "proficient" on the standardized Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program tests?

"Educrats" and union bosses might want you to ignore these results.

But I'm betting the thousands of Kentucky parents with children trapped in failing schools would render a favorable verdict about the need to bring charter schools to the commonwealth.

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