Tuesday, August 17

A Double Blow to Voucher Initiative - Bush Admin Hides its Own Studys Poor Findings

Nation's Charter Schools Lagging Behind, U.S. Test Scores Reveal

The first national comparison of test scores among children in charter schools and regular public schools shows charter school students often doing worse than comparable students in regular public schools. The findings, buried in mountains of data the Education Department released without public announcement, dealt a blow to supporters of the charter school movement, including the Bush administration. The data shows fourth graders attending charter schools performing about half a year behind students in other public schools in both reading and math.

In virtually all instances, the charter students did worse than their counterparts in regular public schools.

Charters are expected to grow exponentially under the new federal education law, No Child Left Behind, which holds out conversion to charter schools as one solution for chronically failing traditional schools. "The scores are low, dismayingly low," said Chester E. Finn Jr., a supporter of charters and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, who was among those who asked the administration to do the comparison.

Federal officials said they did not intend to hide the performance of charter schools, and denied any political motivation for failing to publicly disclose that the data were available. "I guess that was poor publicity on our part," said Robert Lerner, the federal commissioner for education statistics. Mr. Lerner said further analysis was needed to put the data in its proper context.

But others were skeptical, saying the results proved that such schools were not a cure-all. "There's just a huge distance between the sunny claims of the charter school advocates and the reality," said Bella Rosenberg, an special assistant to the president of the American Federation of Teachers. "There's a very strong accountability issue here."

Of the nation's 88,000 public schools, 3,000 are charters, educating more than 600,000 students. But their ranks are expected to grow as No Child Left Behind identifies thousands of schools for possible closing because of poor test scores.

Once hailed as a kind of free-market solution offering parents an escape from moribund public schools, elements of the charter school movement have prompted growing concern in recent years. Around the country, more than 80 charter schools were forced to close, largely because of questionable financial dealings and poor performance, said Luis Huerta, a professor at Columbia University Teachers College. In California, the state's largest charter school operator has just announced the closing of at least 60 campuses, The Los Angeles Times reported on Monday, stranding 10,000 children just weeks before the start of the school year.

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Florida appeals court ruled yesterday that a voucher program for students in failing schools violated the state's Constitution because it sent public money to religious institutions. In a 2-to-1 decision, the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee found that the "vast majority" of students with vouchers used them to enroll in the kind of "sectarian institutions," or religious schools, that are barred from receiving state money under the Florida Constitution.

Most state constitutions prohibit or restrict state money from being spent on religious institutions, and that remains one of the principal legal barriers to the widespread adoption of school vouchers. The United States Supreme Court has said the nation's Constitution does not bar school vouchers. But it also ruled this year that states that gave money for secular education were not compelled to support religious instruction as well, essentially leaving the issue to state courts.

That has placed a focus on the battle over Florida's voucher program. Not only does it take place in a populous state, but it is also one of the first legal contests since the Supreme Court affirmed the role of state constitutions in deciding the fate of vouchers. "The Florida case is really the bellwether that everyone is looking at," said Mark E. DeForrest, an assistant professor at Gonzaga University School of Law, whose research was cited by the Florida appeals court. "It's something that almost all the other states will look at closely. They're not going to be bound by it, but they're definitely going to be influenced by it."

Gov. Jeb Bush said he would appeal the decision.