A study released last month regarding the academic performance of charter schools compared to traditional institutions found that less than half of charter students showed no significant difference in improved learning than their counterparts did.

The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University, in a report published on June 15th, appears to dispel previous assertions by charter school advocates that students in schools run by independent, nonprofit charters fare better than students who belong to a school district like the Los Angeles Unified School District.

According to the study, 46 percent of the charter schools surveyed showed no significant difference in academic improvement versus public schools. Thirty-seven percent fared worse and 17 percent demonstrated academic gains that surpassed those in traditional schools.

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia were included in the research study, entitled “Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance in 16 States.”

The significance of the Stanford study may hold great importance to Westchester parents, who are in the midst of an academic reform process that involves separating from LAUSD and establishing their own local governance structures. Where, and if charters schools fit in is a frequent topic of discussion.

Ingrid Lamoreaux, whose two teenagers attend Westchester High School, likes the independence that many charters have.

“I really like the spirit of charter schools, which is similar to what we are trying to do here in Westchester with local governance,” said Lamoreaux, who is on the high school’s governance council.

Some of charter schools’ supporters believe that these independent entities are more conducive to student achievement and have depicted them as an alternative to the current educational system, which many say is overburdened with layers and layers of bureaucracy and outdated methods of educating students.

Marco Petruzzi, chief executive officer for Los Angeles-based Green Dot Charter Schools, says that the Stanford report omitted important data, such as a more concise breakdown between students separately at the elementary, middle and high school levels.

“It did have some good, interesting breakdowns,” Petruzzi admitted. “But I think the two things that the study did not capture were test scores among the different student grades and the difference between professionally run charters and independent charter schools.”

Green Dot Charter Schools have established 18 chapters throughout Los Angeles, including Animo Venice Charter, which will be relocating from its Westchester location to Venice this fall.

A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, says the results of the study reflect what he has been saying for several years.

“Charters are not the panacea that they are alleged to be,” Duffy asserted. “What we need in the district is real reform, and we could have that reform if we had a school board that is not more interested in giving away the store than in reforming the school district.”

The report recommends that charters consider weeding out schools that are not providing their students with a high-quality education, much like many have advocated for in LAUSD.

“The issue of quality is the most pressing problem that the charter school movement faces,” said Dr. Margaret Raymond, the director of the CREDO study. “The charter school movement continues to work hard to remove barriers to charter entry into the market, making notable strides to level the playing field and improve access to facilities’ funding, but now it needs to focus on equally removing the barriers to exist, which means closing underperforming schools.”

The report did show some good news for parents and others who support charter schools. The CREDO study found that there is a “robust demand for more charter schools from parents and local communities.”

In California, the CREDO report found that students from lower income backgrounds showed the biggest improvement in charter schools in reading and mathematics, compared to their traditional school peers. Special education and English language students also displayed higher gains in both math and reading.

However, reading and math gains among the majority of students in California charters were mixed or not markedly different than their traditional school peers.

Terry Marcellus, who chairs the education committee for the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa, feels that charter schools should play a role in the present and future of education.

“I think that they have to be on the mix,” said Marcellus, a Westchester High graduate whose three daughters also attended the high school.

José Cole-Gutierrez, LAUSD’s director of charter schools, told The Argonaut, “LAUSD serves a very diverse community with a very diverse population, so I think it’s very important to have diverse options (in education). Is there a silver bullet for academic improvement? — No.”

Marcellus believes that creating charters or smaller learning institutions on the campuses of larger schools like Westchester High would offer better alternatives to parents, students and teachers.

“I think that it’s more democratic when you have several smaller schools where families get to choose,” he said. “One of the things that we’ve seen in Westchester is that when you have a school that is going to have 2,000 to 3,000 students, there are too many compromises to keep everyone happy.”

Petruzzi agrees that charters are not a “silver bullet.”

“They are not the solution, but they are an option,” he said.

Petruzzi emphasized that by and large there are vast differences in teaching and learning among non-traditional schools and what he calls professionally managed charters, and he feels that the Stanford report did not highlight those important distinctions.

“Professionally run and organized charter schools like Green Dot and other non-profits are part of an organized network, while many independently run charter schools are not,” the Green Dot CEO explained. “(Independent operators) generally do not attract the same level of high-quality teachers.”

Duffy is aware that there are parents who view charters favorably and that the schools offer some an alternative to LA Unified.

“I recognize that charter schools are here to stay,” the UTLA leader conceded. “But they do not do a better job of educating students than (traditional) public schools, and there needs to be more oversight over charter schools.”

In the Stanford survey, Raymond had words of caution for charter school operators regarding the areas of improvement that they would need to consider in order to be increasingly relevant in the continuing evolution of educational reform.

“If supporters of charter schools fail to address the quality challenge, they run the risk of having it addressed for them,” the CREDO director warned. “If the charter school movement is to flourish, a deliberate and sustained effort to increase the proportion of high quality schools is essential.”

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