More bad news for the charter movement came out of LA this month--well, bad news in terms of actual student outcomes. But that didn't keep the founders of Wal-Mart from donating $15 million to add 20,000 more charter students in LA and 100,000 more throughout California.
A study this month by the Los Angeles Times compared test scores among K-12 students in the city's lowest-performing areas, and found that the traditional public schools had done a better job overall at raising student performance than had the comparable charter schools, even without additional resources that had been given to the charters. In the most dramatic case, the increase among high school students who were performing at "proficient" levels was almost double that of the high schools run by other organizations.
As in the other study I discussed lately, which showed that LA charter schools had dramatically higher teacher turnover rates, it is hard to draw conclusions from a single study about such a complicated topic as educational performance. Also, Los Angels obviously has some conditions that make it different from much of the rest of the country, although it gets a lot of focus when it comes to charter schools because it is the school district with the largest number of charters, both in terms of number of schools and number of students.
However, these and some other research certainly suggest that charters are not clearly outperforming the traditional educational systems they seek to replace. But that does not seem to dissuade the well-funded proponents of the charter movement from continuing to pour more money into these experimental systems. Hence, the $15 million gift from the Walton Family Foundation to the California Charter School Association, only weeks after these studies announcing negative trends in charter school performance.
Charter schools are experiments, and it is the nature of experiments that some, many, and even most are going to fail. But it is important for parents, beguiled by the hype of media like the tear-jerking "Waiting for Superman," to remember that these charter schools ARE experiments, and there is no guarantee what will happen if their child happens to get in. Charters may end up being like the fantastical Willy Wonka story: You may feel like the luckiest child in the world if you get one of the golden tickets, and at least some will succeed tremendously, but once you are in the chocolate factory, how many will end up turned into blueberries, shrunken, or fallen down a garbage chute?