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Charter-school boosters tout findings of new study

March 9, 2011

Charter-school advocates are touting a Stanford University study released Wednesday as support for their case to expand charters throughout the state.

The study of Indiana charter schools, completed by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, showed 98 percent of the 42 Indiana charter schools included in the research grew students' scores on state reading tests as much or more than traditional public schools. One hundred percent of those charters showed the same or stronger growth on state math tests.

Charter boosters touted the results Wednesday at the Statehouse a few hours before a Senate committee hearing on a bill that would vastly expand the number of charters in the state. Charters are publicly funded schools with autonomy from many state rules, allowing the schools to be more innovative.

Russ Simnick, president of the Indiana Charter Schools Association, said the study “should put to bed the argument that charter schools are a failed experiment or they’re not working.”
 
“You just can’t run from the data that show that we’re doing exceptionally,” Simnick said.

Others, however, had a different take on the results.

Jonathan Plucker, director of Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Educational Policy, said the Stanford study showed similar results to those in a January 2009 study he helped author. That is, there is little difference in outcomes among students at charter and traditional public schools.

The Stanford study showed 43 percent of the charter schools in the study had better learning gains in reading than their traditional public school counterparts, and 26 percent had better gains in math. The study determined the differences were statistically significant, but Plucker said they still were incredibly small distinctions.

“Teaching kids is hard – it’s really hard – and we still do not have the magic wand to say, ‘Hey we’ll just open charters; that’s going to solve everything,’” Plucker said. “It’s not. Study after study has told us that.”

Stanford’s study examined ISTEP results of about 9,000 charter school students in 4th through 9th grade over four academic years, starting in 2004-2005. Those were compared with the charter students’ traditional public-school counterparts, who were paired based on grade level, gender, race and other factors.

The study also showed that students had an initial gain in learning in the first year at a charter school and a larger gain in the second year, but they showed no significant difference in the third year.

The Stanford study was commissioned by the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, which “supports policy initiatives that enable high-quality charter schools and small schools,” according to its website.

Nate Schnellenberger, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said other studies show less rosy results for charter schools. Specifically, he cited the results of another study by the same Stanford research center.

That 2009 report, which looked at charter school performance in 16 states, excluding Indiana, shows “wide variation in performance” among charters.

According to the report's executive summary, 17 percent of charter schools provide better educational opportunities than public schools, while 37 percent deliver worse learning results. The remainder performed roughly the same as public schools.

Schnellenberger said that strengthens his case against charter expansion, which he sees as a threat to traditional public schools’ funding.

“We need to ensure that new charter-school approvals fit within what the state can afford without diminishing resources to traditional public schools,” Schnellenberger said.  “We’re not doing things we know would help.”

But Simnick said the contrast between the national and statewide results in the Stanford studies merely strengthens the validity of the Indiana study.

“Not only are we doing well,” Simnick said, “but we’re doing well in comparison with the country.”

Members of the Senate’s Education and Career Development committee will hear those arguments Wednesday afternoon. The charter-expansion bill already has passed the House with mostly Republican support.

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