I remember proudly explaining to my private school friends why I attended public schools. My parents, I said, were committed to public school education. They had offered me the chance to attend a private school once they could afford it, but I declined.
After my homogenous neighborhood public elementary years, my much more racially and economically integrated middle school and high schools showed me how the cultural exposure in our newly integrating Southern city educated me about the culturally diverse world for which I was preparing myself. Additional federal funding for "at-risk" schools such as mine supported a rich diversity of course offerings, and I was grateful for the opportunities I received.
As parents, my husband and I also have supported public education and watched with alarm the growing trend toward establishing charter schools that drain precious taxpayer money from public education. Yet we've withheld judgment to see whether these approaches could nonetheless help at-risk students.
This week, results of meaningful academic test comparisons between charter and public schools became public. Although the Bush administration has promoted charter schools as part of its education program, for nine months it sat on the data that became public this week. It took sleuthing to ferret out the truth.
It is understandable, if unethical, for charter school advocates to want to suppress these results of test comparisons of charter schools and public schools, which show public school students consistently outperforming charter school students. Fourth-grade students in charter schools consistently did worse on reading and math tests than those in public schools. Some have attributed this poor performance to charter schools' having taken on more at-risk students. Actually, though, the charter school students did poorly even when compared to students of similar racial, economic and geographic background.
There are reasons why charter schools might be predicted to have poor performance, including their higher administrative costs and more resources spent on recruitment. Charter schools don't benefit from the efficiencies of scale in purchasing educational materials that public schools can offer.
But especially, these schools have so far lacked the sort of accountability under which public schools are obliged to operate. Far from offering a spur to public education to do better, the history of charter schools seems to be one of isolation from public scrutiny, as witnessed by the Bush administration's failure to make public announcements about the results of these schools' actual performance.The whole premise of the No Child Left Behind approach to education is that standards must apply to children of all kinds. Does this apply to charter schools as well? As any school board member weary from countless parent phone calls can attest, public education is of intense interest to citizens, and actions of public educators are accountable to them. Ought not publicly funded charter schools also be held accountable for the quality of education they do or do not provide?
Testing alone does not reveal the truth about the quality of a school's education performance. Increasing testing requirements has sometimes resulted in a more rigid approach to teaching, and a temptation by administrators to punish underperforming schools and teachers. However, these results, taken from thousands of students in hundreds of schools, add to growing concerns that charter schools merit greater public scrutiny.
The results of the fourth-grade student tests will probably spawn arguments for more, not less, funding for charter schools, to make them better. But as I learned as a child, the kinds of problems that prompt criticisms of public education can be addressed within the public school system far better than by siphoning off its resources to create new, less accountable and, it seems now, possibly less effective solutions that serve the private educational industry better than they serve the nation's children.
Margaret Krome of Madison writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2004 The Capital Times