Union Propaganda Can’t Hide Charter Schools’ Success

There they go again. Back in July 2002, during a slow news period, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), a school employee labor union, issued a widely cited report “showing” that charter schools–autonomous public schools of choice–do not work as well as the traditional district public schools.

Two years later, the AFT has launched another “summer surprise”–a white paper claiming to blow the lid off charter schools. In short, the AFT claims that test scores of charter school students fall below those of district school students.

But are the claims accurate?

As in so many matters of education policy, the AFT release is one part meat, and three parts bologna. The meat is that charter school test scores usually do fall below traditional district school test scores, even after controlling for some student characteristics. Contrary to what AFT claims, however, this is old news. I myself have noted this fact, as did the Brookings Institution in 2002, RAND in 2001, and various others over the years.

But do low scores mean that charters provide children with a lesser education than do traditional district schools? Hardly. Quite simply, parents whose kids are doing great in traditional district schools rarely choose charters. Instead, charters educate children–many with special needs–who were floundering in traditional public schools.

The AFT intentionally ignores what 90 percent of the nearly 100 studies of charter schools have found, that charter schools are more effective and efficient than traditional public schools. Although academic results vary by state, most studies find that charter school students learn more in a year than do comparable district school students.

Over the past seven years I’ve done fieldwork in over 30 charter schools, so for me this academic reality has a human face. Last May I visited Collegium, a Chester County charter with below average test scores. Yet despite those scores, internal analyses suggest that an elementary student gains over 1.5 years of academic growth for each year at Collegium. One young man told me that when he transferred from a traditional public school to Collegium in third grade, he read at a first grade level. Now, in seventh grade, he reads at a seventh grade level.

Using AFT’s analysis, this student is only “average” and Collegium is a “failing” school, but looking at actual academic growth over time shows this charter school to be a big success.

So why do charter schools do so well at educating children, despite getting significantly less funding than district schools? And why does the AFT hate them so?

In part, most charters succeed because, as a long line of research shows, they embrace their teachers and parents as partners. Surveys show that parents rate their charter schools as better than their previous traditional public schools, often by 50 percent margins. Charter parents frequently have a role in developing school policies, and even in hiring and evaluating staff–something few district schools would consider allowing. Similarly, most surveys show that charter teachers are more “empowered” than their peers at traditional public schools. For example, as my team reported in School Choice in the Real World, Arizona charter school teachers are more than twice as likely (62-25%) than district school teachers to report having a role in establishing curricula, and more than three times as likely (55-17%) to determine class schedules.

All of which explains why the labor unions like the AFT (and the NEA) hate charter schools. Traditional public schools are large bureaucracies with many constituencies, managed by many administrators. The district school system is not controlled by the consumers of education–parents and children–but by politically driven interest groups, especially the school employee labor unions.

In contrast, charter schools are, on average, about a quarter of the size of traditional public schools. When conflicts arise, principal-teacher-parent-student relationships are more likely to be face-to-face than lawyer-to-lawyer. Small, intimate school communities have less need for third-party representation, and indeed, charter teachers rarely unionize. This, ultimately, is the crux of the labor union opposition to charter schools.

As in so many aspects of public policy, to understand why traditional district employees and labor unions so hate charter schools, you have to remember that education policy is all about the grownups, not the children.

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Dr. Robert Maranto is a Scholar with The Commonwealth Foundation and teaches political science and public administration at Villanova University. The Commonwealth Foundation (www.CommonwealthFoundation.org) is a public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg, PA. Permission is hereby granted to reprint in whole or in part, provided the author and his affiliation are cited.