The verdict is in, and it is the same as four years ago. In updating its 2009 national study on charter schools, Stanford's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) reaches the same conclusion it did in its previous study: The vast majority of charter schools in the United States are no better than public schools.
In 2009, 83 percent of charters were the same or worse than public schools, and now about 71-75 percent are. Even more telling, CREDO concludes that "the charter sector is getting better on average, but not because existing schools are getting dramatically better; it is largely driven by the closure of bad schools." In addition, students at new charter schools have lower reading and math gains than at public schools.
In the study, learning refers only to test scores in elementary and middle schools. Researchers often measure learning improvement in terms of grade levels or years. Because the gains in charters are so small, the authors here attempt to translate test scores into months of learning. Converting test scores into uniform monthly intervals of learning relies on faulty assumptions and is viewed as unreliable.
Nonetheless, the study finds that the average charter school student gains eight days of reading learning over a public school student and nothing in math. Experts agree that math learning depends more on instruction in school, whereas reading advancement often hinges on skills and vocabulary gained outside the classroom.
Even for groups where the claimed learning is the greatest, the most those students gain is about one month of additional learning. Many charters boast longer school days, Saturday school and an extended school year. Therefore, it appears that public schools are more efficient at squeezing learning into a shortened time period.
What do these eight additional days on average of reading learning cost? It is difficult to compare charter school and public school spending. Charter school spending and revenue vary widely and are not transparent. Charters' grade levels, programs and demographics are often different than public schools'. One study that controlled for these factors found that the charters touted as successful -- KIPP, Achievement First and Uncommon Schools -- spend between 20-30 percent more than comparable public schools in their host districts.
The human cost of this charter sector improvement is also not addressed in the study. Officials who authorize charters gamble with students' fates. When the experiment fails, i.e. the charter school is bad, it closes. The study did not count the educational loss these displaced charter students suffer.
In Connecticut, the human toll of charter schools includes severe discipline policies, such as shockingly high suspension rates of elementary school students as young as 5; mistreatment of those few students with disabilities in their schools so extreme it necessitates a civil rights settlement; high attrition rates; and exclusion of Connecticut's neediest students.
Charter schools exact a toll on parents, as well. Public schools are overseen by elected school boards that hold public meetings. When charters replace public schools, parents lose their voice in education. Charter boards are not democratically elected. There is no requirement that board members live in the community or answer to parents. Often, members are corporate executives with no children in charter schools.
The cost of charters extends beyond the individual family. In neighborhoods across this country, public schools are community hubs. Funding a parallel school system starves the existing public schools and dooms vital community institutions. In Chicago and Philadelphia, officials de-funded public schools to fund charters, then closed an unprecedented number of neighborhood schools, despite dramatic protests by parents and students. In New Orleans, charter school expansion increased segregation, with children of color concentrated in low-performing schools and white students in higher-performing ones. In these cities, the negative effects of charter expansion fall hardest on poor children of color.
At the same time states shell out billions of dollars on charter schools, courts have ruled that states have deprived public schools of billions of dollars owed to them. Since 1997, Connecticut taxpayers have spent more than a half a billion dollars on charter schools, not including special education, transportation and other expenses host districts pay, while the state has consistently underfunded Connecticut's public schools.
Taxpayers pay billions to fund parallel charter school systems that lack public oversight, exclude our neediest children, increase segregation, starve existing schools and decimate communities. As a nation and a state, it is time to question whether this price is too high to pay for an average of eight days extra in reading.
Wendy Lecker is a columnist for Hearst Connecticut Media Group and is senior attorney for the Campaign for Fiscal Equity project at the Education Law Center.