AFT Attack on Charter Schools Meets Swift Response from Reformers

Published October 1, 2004

On one hot Tuesday in August, school reformers around the nation were greeted with unwelcome news as they sat down to their morning newspapers. An above-the-fold, front-page story in the New York Times proclaimed charter schools had failed at their one ostensible purpose: improving students’ academic performance.

The subject of the August 16 Times story was a new study by the American Federation of Teachers, “Charter School Achievement on the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).” Its main finding seemed to indicate charter school students trailed students in other public schools by “about half a year of schooling.” Among the study’s other conclusions: Charter schools in states where charter laws provided them with greater autonomy (Michigan and Texas) did significantly worse than states with less-autonomous charter schools (California and Colorado).

The story’s author, Diana Jean Schemo, went on to say the AFT report’s findings “dealt a blow to supporters of the charter school movement, including the Bush Administration.”

But as the reform community downloaded the report and began to scour it in anticipation of the inevitable questions that would follow from reporters and others, problems with the study’s methodology quickly began to emerge. For one, as a flurry of email traffic between reformers noted, the study had not controlled for race.

Chester E. Finn, Jr., who was quoted–apparently out of context–in the Times article, pointed out a fundamental problem with the report.

“On key comparisons, especially by students’ race, there is no statistically significant difference between the performance of kids in charter schools and traditional public schools,” he said. “This is especially salient considering how heavily charter schools are patronized by black and Hispanic families. Their kids aren’t doing worse in charter schools.”

That evening, Deputy Secretary for Education and Improvement Nina Rees indicated the AFT study’s research model was itself problematic. To truly measure charter schools’ effectiveness, Rees said, a longitudinal study model taking into account a number of different variables is needed. She noted her Office of Innovation and Improvement already had such a study in progress, but its results are still some time away.

In an article the following day in the Wall Street Journal, Paul Peterson and two colleagues at Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance offered their own analysis of the AFT report.

“Big deal,” they replied. “These results could easily indicate nothing other than the simple fact that charter schools are typically asked to serve problematic students in low-performing districts with many poor, minority children.”

This viewpoint was underscored in an open letter that appeared a week later in the Times, signed by 30 leading education researchers at many of the nation’s finest universities and research institutions. Because NAEP provides only limited family background information, and because the AFT study was based on only one year of information for charter schools, “it tells us nothing about whether charter schools are succeeding,” they said. The letter was organized by the Center for Education Reform, one of the nation’s leading charter school advocates and resources for information about charters.

Arizona’s Goldwater Institute has for years been a national leader in applying a longitudinal approach to measuring charter school success. One recent Goldwater study of Arizona charters found “charter school students initially enter schools with lower test scores than their traditional public school counterparts, but their annual achievement growth is roughly 3 points higher than their non-charter peers.”

It came as little surprise to many observers that an AFT study would be critical of charter schools. As Rees was quick to point out, it was AFT founder and former president Albert Shanker who first introduced the charter concept to the general public in the late 1980s. But the AFT essentially declared war on charter schools at its 2000 national convention, and the union’s officials have been overtly hostile to the movement ever since.

“It is unfortunate, though entirely predictable, that the AFT, an organization on record for more than two years for the need for a moratorium on charter schools, would stoop so low as to brand schools guilty of little else than working with low-achieving students,” said John E. Chubb, a member of the Hoover Institution’s Koret Task Force on K-12 Education.

The AFT charges hold strong implications for President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, which recommends charter schools as a restructuring tool for districts where schools have been designated in need of improvement due to sub-par academic performance.

House Education Committee Chairman John Boehner (R-Ohio) noted that, unlike regular public schools, charters schools can have their charter revoked and be closed down if they fail at their missions.

“Lobbying organizations such as the AFT and the so-called National Education Association are spending millions to fight President Bush’s efforts to make regular schools subject to similar accountability,” noted Boehner.

Don Soifer ([email protected]) is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia.

For more information …

The AFT report can be found online at