In Defense of Charter Schools

On March 16th the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by Education Next’s Paul E. Peterson, author of the recently released book Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning.

In the op-ed, Peterson dissects the logic of those who oppose charter schools and other forms of school choice.

Peterson believes school choice critics

reverse causation by blaming the sad state of public schools on events that occurred long after schools had stagnated. They point, for example, to President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law (enacted in 2002), mayoral governance of schools recently instituted in some cities, and the creation of a small number (4,638) of charter schools that serve less than 3% of the U.S. school-age population.

To uncover what is wrong with American public schools one has to dig deeper than these recent developments in education. One needs to consider the impact of restrictive collective bargaining agreements that prevent rewarding good teachers and removing ineffective ones, intrusive court interventions, and useless teacher certification laws.

“Charters were invented to address these problems,” Peterson continues.  According to a 2009 Education Next survey, he notes, the public approves of steady charter growth.

Peterson cites research by Stanford University’s Caroline Hoxby and Harvard University’s Thomas Kane–randomized experiments that compare students who win a charter lottery with those who applied but were not given a seat–and also research by RAND, which found that charter high schools had graduation rates and college attendance rates  that were, respectively, 15 and 8 points higher than regular district school graduation and college attendance rates.

Peterson also points to research by Harvard University’s Martin West and German economist Ludger Woessmann, who examined the impact of school choice on the performance of 15-year-old students in 29 industrialized countries and “discovered that the greater the competition between the public and private sector, the better all students do in math, science and reading.” Peterson notes that “their findings imply that expanding charters to include 50% of all students would eventually raise American students’ math scores to be competitive with the highest-scoring countries in the world.”

Peterson’s conclusions:

What makes charters important today is less their current performance than their potential to innovate. Educational opportunity is about to be revolutionized by powerful notebook computers, broadband and the open-source development of curricular materials (a la Wikipedia). Curriculum can be tailored to the level of accomplishment each student has reached, an enormous step forward.

If American education remains stagnant, such innovations will spread slowly, if at all. If the charter world continues to expand, the competition between them and district schools could prove to be transformative.”

Read the full op-ed here.

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