Renowned pollster George Gallup once referred to data gathering this way: "Not everything that can be counted counts; and not everything that counts can be counted." This comment is apropos to any discussion of charter school research, especially recent findings from Robert Bifulco and Helen Ladd ("Results from the Tar Heel State," research, Fall 2005). Their study, sharply critical of North Carolina charter schools, is flawed and fails to "count" what matters most to parents and students.
The authors conclude that charter schools negatively affect performance, and that the public interest is not "well-served" by these schools. Consider, though, that only students who either entered a charter school after 4th grade, or exited a charter school before 8th grade, were included in their main analysis. This means that longer-term charter-school attendees (and, presumably, those students deriving the greatest benefit from these schools, since they stayed put) were excluded. In addition, the data used to assess performance came from state end-of-grade tests measuring knowledge of state curriculum--a seemingly obvious bias against innovative charter schools exercising their freedom to employ alternative curricula.
Bifulco and Ladd's data also differ from recent Department of Public Instruction statistics. In 2004-05, 63 percent of regular North Carolina charter schools made adequate yearly progress under federal accountability guidelines, compared with just 58 percent of traditional public schools. Charter schools were also more likely to earn the label "school of excellence" than traditional public schools (33 percent compared to 24 percent).
And what about those intangibles that aren't easily "counted"? Charter schools (and choice programs) empower parents--not school boards--with the freedom to select the best school for their child. In the final analysis, Bifulco and Ladd's study demonstrates what parents have known all along: no one school can possibly meet the needs of all students, be it public, private, or charter. But charter schools do provide valuable and much-needed options, often to poor and disenfranchised families who cannot afford private school tuition. Doesn't it make sense to let parents be the ultimate arbiters of whether their interests are "well-served" by charter schools?
Director, North Carolina
Bifulco and Ladd's negative conclusion about North Carolina charters is much less certain than it appears. For instance, despite their finding that students in charters make less academic progress than students in regular public schools, enrollment in N.C. charter schools persists, and grows.
It's also troubling that the negative effect of charters that they report depends upon charter age. …