Education and Literacy
A review of the Brookings Institution report, Charter Schools: A Report on Rethinking the Federal Role in Education finds that it relies on a limited body of research, misstates key issues and makes some recommendations not supported by the evidence. The review, by Western Michigan University professor Gary Miron, was produced by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC), housed at the University of Colorado at Boulder School of Education, with funding from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.
The Brookings report consists of a summary of evidence from five studies of student achievement in oversubscribed charter schools, plus two studies about charter school revenues. It also draws on information from exchanges between the six co-authors at a day-long Brookings conference. It ends with recommendations intended to help shape the federal role in charter school policy.
The evidence presented on student achievement suggests that charter schools are more effective at raising student achievement in popular urban charter schools. The evidence presented on revenues suggests that charter schools are short-changed in terms of the funding they receive.
Miron points out that the five studies of student achievement in oversubscribed charter schools cited in the report, "cannot validly be generalized to less-popular charter schools." Overall, the research on charter student achievement is much less positive. Even more troubling, he finds that the two studies on charter school funding cited in the report are used to justify recommendations that are "poorly developed and based on a narrow and misleading view of the evidence."
Miron criticizes the Brookings report for unquestioningly accepting the assertion by charter advocates that charter schools get some 20% less per pupil in public revenues than traditional public schools. In truth, he explains, "differences in revenues can largely be explained by higher spending by traditional public schools for special education, student support services, transportation, and food services." Moreover, there is great variation within the charter sector. Contrary to the Brookings recommendation, Miron concludes, "Recommendations regarding charter school finance should be targeted at the creation of better state funding formulas that are more sensitive to the diverse programs schools offer and the diverse needs of students that schools serve."
As a result of the shortcomings of its data and analyses, the report's recommendations related to charter school facilities and charter school finance inappropriately support policies intended to expand the number of charter schools in the short run at the expense of policies that will strengthen charter schools in the longer run.
The report is on stronger ground, Miron finds, in three areas: its call for the federal government to support and encourage the collection of more data and for charter school lotteries to be overseen by independent agencies; its proposal to set aside a portion of federal charter school funding for charter school authorizers and to make federal charter school funding contingent on rigorous oversight; and its call for a careful examination of unintended consequences in existing federal regulations on charter schools.
In the end, Miron says, federal policies that will strengthen charter schools in the long run "need to be based on a more representative body of evidence and a process of formulating recommendations that includes more voices and more than a day of conversations."