Results blow to charter schools

United States

Poor pupil performance adds to mounting criticism of US alternative state-education movement. Stephen Phillips reports.

PUPILS at charter schools, the independent state schools touted as the remedy to America's ailing public-education system, trail their peers academically by up to one year, according to a new study.

Charter-school students lagged behind 59 per cent of children attending standard state schools in reading and maths tests, says the Brookings Institution, an influential Washington DC think-tank.

The survey, billed as the first independent glimpse of the US alternative state-school movement, looked at 1999-2000 results at 376 schools. It adds ammunition to growing criticism of America's 2,300 charter schools for lack of academic accountability, lax practices and misappropriation of public funds.

"The system of accountability is ridiculous, it does not exist - you cannot measure how well they are doing," said Amy Stuart Wells, education professor at Columbia University Teachers College.

"They are a very diverse group of institutions, some enrol high-achieving kids, but others deal with kids left behind," she added.

Charter schools are run by companies, parents, teachers or churches, for instance, with a mission to improve students' education often using unconventional methods.

"One possible explanation for the lower test scores is that charter schools are not doing a very good job," said the Brookings Institution's Tom Loveless. But he conceded the findings could just as well be skewed by the fact that many charter schools cater for struggling pupils.

"They take on a disproportionate number of at-risk students," said Neal McCluskey of the pro-charter schools Center for Education Reform.

Two common denominators that often sabotage charter schools' lofty aspirations are stingy pay and less-qualified staff, said Gary Miron, education researcher at Western Michigan University. "The biggest problem is retaining teachers," he added.

The momentum of the charter movement has been kept in check recently by scandals at several schools. Inspectors in Texas found taxpayers' money being used to buy Victoria's Secret lingerie and dozens of California schools were using untrained teachers.

Moves are now afoot in several states to rein in the charter schools.

California passed a new law last month, bringing them under tighter control, in one of the biggest reforms since they were opened a decade ago.

"I've had big problems with charter schools," said the Bill's sponsor, Sarah Reyes, Democratic Assemblywoman for Fresno, where a school had its licence revoked for claiming reimbursement for fictitious pupils, hiring convicted criminals and violating a ban on religious instruction.

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