Understanding Charter Schools
Thomas, Evan, Wingert, Pat, Newsweek
Byline: Evan Thomas and Pat Wingert
Innovative charter schools outperform bureaucratic public schools every time--right? WRONG.
Some 15 of NEWSWEEK's top 100 public high schools are charter schools. Since charter schools amount to only about 4 percent of all public schools, that would seem to suggest that charter schools are a runaway success story, right?
Well, sort of. For the past two decades, charter schools have been touted as a way of improving public schools--a nonbureaucratic, innovative alternative designed to test new ideas that all schools could benefit from. Charter schools are generally (though not always) nonunion schools, freer to hire and fire teachers. The experimentation they've fostered has produced some of the best schools in the country.
So it came as a bit of a shock to the community of educational reformers last year when a study by Stanford University's Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) found that 37 percent of charter schools produce academic results that are worse than public schools, while only 17 percent perform significantly better. Earlier studies sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers' union, had produced similar results, but they were suspect, since unions stood to lose from the charter-school movement. CREDO, on the other hand, is part of the Hoover Institution, known for favoring free-market solutions. "The perception that charters are per se better than other public schools has been belied by the facts," says Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT.
What happened? In a nutshell, educators have been better at starting charter schools than at shutting bad ones. …