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The Politics of Education: Charter Schools

You couldn’t expect a guy with a doctorate in the politics of education to let the education portion of Wednesday night’s presidential debate go unchecked, could you?

Apparently, both candidates support charter schools.  No surprise from McCain; the Republican party tends to support most forms of school choice (that’s a gross generalization, but I’ll live with that for now). That Obama supports charter schools signals an interesting policy shift, assuming that Obama’s stance is representative of the Democraticy party as a whole (which it may very well not be).  I’m personally pretty mixed on charter schools.  On one hand, I think any policy or set of policies based in free market principles where perfect information on the part of consumers is assumed is highly problematic in the field of education.  On the other hand, these days I’m for anything that attempts to disrupt the status quo in public education.

And, speaking of “perfect information,” both candidates at least implied that charter schools “work” or that they are “effective” in some way (as opposed to voucher programs, where there seemed to be some disagreement).  Well, that’s less than perfect information.  Consider this study conducted as part of NAEP’s pilot study of charter school performance in 2003.  According to the executive summary for the report, “After adjusting for student characteristics, charter school mean scores in reading and mathematics were lower, on average, than those for public noncharter schools.”

I also bring your attention to more recent research conducted by colleagues and “social associates” (I’m not sure I can call them “friends,” but I have been out socially with them on multiple occasions) Sarah and Chris Lubienski.  Based on their analyses of NAEP data, Sarah and Chris concluded that “charter schools, privately operated and publicly financed, did significantly worse than public schools in the fourth grade, once student populations were taken into account.”

(BTW, teachable moment…the next sentence in the NYT article is as follows: “In the eighth grade, it found, students in charters did slightly better than those in public schools, though the sample size was small and the difference was not statistically significant.”  That’s a nonsensical statement.  If the differences were not statistically significant, then nobody did better than anybody else; not even slightly better.  So, the first part of the sentence cannot logically precede the second part.  This bugs me!)

The body of research on charter schools and school choice policies more generally has become overly politicized.  There are too many researchers with agendas dabbling in that field, and too many policy advocates who cherrypick a single study to support their argument.  However, in my reasonably well-informed opinion, the two studies above are as “independent” as they come.

So, Senators Obama and McCain, I’m in favor of exploring any and all educational policy options, including choice-based alternatives.  But, let’s please not mislead the American public.

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