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Thursday, August 19, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Collin Levey / Times editorial columnist
Big picture doesn't justify charter-school foes' glee


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Not since the golden age of "Looney Tunes" has bad news been met with such hand-rubbing glee. This week, the American Federation of Teachers informed the media that students in some charter schools across the country were actually underperforming their peers in regular public schools.

In a "gotcha" moment, the group announced it had culled the results from numbers "buried" in data released by the U.S. Education Department — numbers that had gone largely unnoticed.

The discovery prompted speculation that the Bush administration had squirreled away the unflattering numbers to dispel what a New York Times editorial yesterday triumphantly characterized as their "devastating" reflection on the No Child Left Behind Act. But while the results suggest that charter-school supporters might put the champagne back on ice for a while, they hardly write the obituary for the nation's boldest and youngest effort to give poor children a chance.

You'll recall that charter schools were not an invention of the Bush administration. Over the past decade, the movement has gathered momentum from the grassroots efforts of frustrated parents who wanted their kids to have a fighting chance to get ahead. The No Child Left Behind Act capitalized on an infrastructure already in place in many states by mandating that children in chronically failing public schools have the right to take their learning elsewhere.

The National Association of Education Progress data in question this week tested a sample of students in seven states. But there are now some 3,000 charter schools educating more than half a million kids across the country. And no sooner had the report come to light than stories appeared in smaller newspapers across the country contradicting the findings.

In Indiana, for instance, the charter-school director noted that the national sample had been taken from weak schools and that the data failed to take student improvement into account. In Blackfoot, Idaho, charter-school supporters pointed to charter schools so in demand that one had recently doubled its attendance. The anecdotes also see support in a separate study by the Brookings Institution: It found that while students who had transferred into charter schools recently had not shown marked improvement, those who had attended since kindergarten were significantly ahead of their public-school peers.

Meanwhile, mavens are already poring over the latest study and finding curious omissions — noting, for instance, that the charter schools surveyed had twice the minority enrollment of the public schools. Minority students, for a host of reasons, tend to perform worse than average on standardized tests. When the data are adjusted accordingly, the apparent poor performance of charter schools vanishes.

In fact, passage of No Child Left Behind and the ascendance of charter schools in general owe much to the strong support of the African-American community. Even the NAACP, a traditional ally of the teachers unions, has been caught up in the fray as many of its younger members see school choice as a new civil-rights issue.

The newly revealed study results are unlikely to deter the movement, either. In many cities, Chicago among them, waiting lists for charter schools still exceed the number of spaces by thousands of students. Besides, even in NAEP data, states like California, Arizona and Colorado saw fourth-grade students in charter schools edge ahead of their public-school counterparts in reading. And Arizona and California together are home to one-third of all the charter schools in the country.

On the larger subject of school reform, John Kerry's campaign speechwriters have found no end to clever word play on the No Child Left Behind Act — for instance, charging President Bush with leaving "no corporation (polluter, millionaire, etc.) behind."

It bears repeating, though, that legislation passed Congress with bipartisan backing — including no less an education demagogue than Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy. It also bears repeating that the criticism comes from the education establishment, especially teachers unions — whom nobody would expect to embrace a law that imposes accountability and metes out real sanctions to schools that don't perform.

The standard fig leaf of Democrats attempting to navigate between parental expectations and union demands is in play here, too. Democrats say they support accountability but criticize the Bush administration for failing adequately to "fund" the law. In other words, the educrats always turn it into a demand for more money.

Such opponents may often gasp that the charter-school program is a devious plot by the GOP to rid the world of public education, but their calculation is simple politics. The unions' positions on merit pay (no) and seniority (yes) badly warps the educational landscape. And, as is true with most such entrenched operations, they are motivated by the interests of their members, not the interests of their students.

It has been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result every time. Common sense dictates that charter schools' potential vastly outstrips the likelihood that the public-school system will somehow suddenly transform itself to overcome the complaints and dissatisfactions that have festered for at least 30 years.

But having all the information out here is the best possible thing for the education system's clients, namely children and their families. Charter schools, after all, were expressly designed not to be a compulsory exercise. If indeed they do not perform up to the expectations of parents and communities, they will, quite simply, fail and fade away.

Collin Levey writes Thursdays for editorial pages of The Times. E-mail her at clevey@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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