In a just-released report, Do Charter Schools Measure Up?, the American Federation of Teachers calls for a moratorium on charter schools. For the AFT, "These schools are a diversion from reformers' and policymakers' efforts to improve education in America." That claim will surely surprise the more than one million students, parents, and teachers who have opted out of traditional public schools in favor of these innovative - and effective-schools.
The AFT report falls down in six key areas.
First, the AFT ignores parent, student, and teacher satisfaction. This is a telling flaw. Imagine publishing a comparison of the automobile industry without including customer appraisals. According to the National Study of Charter Schools published by the U.S. Department of Education, students and parents say their charter schools by-and-large are safer, friendlier, and more effective academically than the traditional schools they previously attended. Similarly, teachers in charters reported greater job satisfaction and professional authority than did their peers in district schools.
Second, the AFT claims students in charter schools "generally score no better (and often do worse) on student achievement tests than other comparable public school students." This claim is true in some instances, but data from Arizona, which has the nation's largest charter-school marketplace, show that the test scores of children who enroll in charter schools improve with each passing year, surpassing students in traditional public schools. Lew Solmon, author of a landmark Goldwater Institute study on academic results in charter schools, reports that, "Students enrolled in charter schools for two and three consecutive years have an advantage over students staying in traditional public schools for the same periods of time." The Goldwater study remains the most comprehensive study of academic achievement in Arizona charter schools.
Third, the AFT says charter schools are not innovative, a baseless claim. Charter schools have pioneered innovate personnel policies that are practically unheard of in traditional schools, including merit-based pay, differential pay scales based on hard-to-find qualifications, and peer involvement in hiring teachers. The Charter School of Sedona, for instance, even has master teachers set their own salaries and those of their staff. Some charter schools, such as Scottsdale's Edupreneurship, have developed whole new curricula. Other charter schools have refined teaching methods such as Computer Assisted Instruction and disseminated Montessori-style education.
Fourth, the AFT's definition of accountability is seriously flawed. The report claims that charter schools are no more accountable than traditional district schools now that most states have adopted "accountability" plans. Let's take a closer look at this claim. When district schools screw up, they have to do paperwork and multi-year improvement plans, most of which are never implemented. In contrast, when charter schools mess up, they close down: 6 percent in Arizona and over 3 percent nationally. Charter schools face administrative accountability, but more importantly, they face market accountability.
Fifth, the AFT misstates findings about the impact of charter school competition on district schools. Peer-reviewed research published by Columbia and Harvard Universities finds that where strong charter laws exist, districts respond to competition by working harder to please parents with leadership changes, more program options, better customer service, and teacher empowerment. In Arizona, as my team reported in the Teachers College Record, districts facing significant competition from charter schools reacted with positive leadership changes.
Finally, the AFT report misleads through omission. For example, the AFT claims that Humboldt State professor Eric Rofes found that only a quarter of district schools responded to competition from nearby charters. While technically correct, the AFT fails to note Rofes' finding that about half of school districts with high levels of charter competition responded to that competition. This is an argument for more competition, not less. Elsewhere, the AFT reports that 35 charter schools in Arizona closed, but fails to note that many of these schools never actually opened.
In fairness, the AFT paper is occasionally accurate. After much hemming and hawing, the AFT acknowledges that most charter schools spend less money than most district schools. The AFT also says that not enough has been done to measure how much learning goes on in charter schools, and for that matter, in district schools. In this regard, the union is correct: there is much we don't know about charter schools.
Unfortunately, the AFT report does little to add to our knowledge.
Dr. Maranto (Robert.Maranto@villanova.edu) teaches political science at Villanova University and is an associate scholar of the Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute. He is the co-editor of School Choice in the Real World: Lessons from Arizona Charter Schools.