Correction to This Article
A Dec. 15 article and graphic on District charter schools referred to Meridian Public Charter School as a for-profit organization. The company that manages Meridian, Imagine Schools, is a profit-making company, but the school itself is a nonprofit institution.

Charter vs. Traditional

By Michael Dobbs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Caroline Hoxby, a Harvard economics professor, has data showing that District charter schools do a better job of teaching students than regular public schools. Nonsense, says Howard Nelson of the American Federation of Teachers. His research suggests the opposite.

With more students attending charter schools than any other city in the country, Washington has become ground zero in a heated nationwide debate about the effects of school choice. To prove its case, each side has drawn on rival teams of researchers armed with complicated statistical models.

Independent researchers and many teachers believe that it is far too early to reach grand conclusions about which kind of education is better.

"There are some charter schools that are doing fabulously and some that aren't doing a good job at all," said Mary Levy, an attorney for the education advocacy group D.C. Parents United, who has tried to remain neutral. "The same is true of public schools."

The debate is likely to intensify todaywhen the National Assessment for Education Progress, an independent body that styles itself "the nation's report card," publishes results from the first nationwide comparison of charter schools and regular public schools. Its data are likely to provide fresh ammunition for both charter supporters and skeptics.

Visits to two neighboring District schools that have become part of the debate -- Meridian Public Charter School and Garrison Elementary School -- and conversations with researchers on both sides of the argument bring to mind Winston Churchill's dictum about three kinds of lies: "lies, damn lies and statistics."

The number of students attending Garrison is shrinking, while the number going to Meridian is growing rapidly. On the other hand, Garrison students are doing better on standardized tests than their charter school counterparts. The student-teacher ratio is lower at the charter school, but the regular school has more teachers rated "highly qualified." And so on.

Other school matchups in the District and across the country produce similarly confusing results.

Since the first charter school was founded in Massachusetts in 1991, almost 3,300 have opened across the country, serving nearly 1 million children nationwide. They have proved particularly popular in the District, where nearly 20 percent of all students attend charter schools. The alternative schools are part of the school district but operate with a high degree of managerial and educational autonomy.

Arguments over which type of school is superior heated up over the summer when Nelson published preliminary National Assessment for Education Progress data indicating that charter school students lagged behind their traditional school counterparts by roughly a half year on standardized test scores . The study caused a furor among school choice advocates who argued that it was based on highly selective data. Hoxby struck back with a paper claiming a huge academic gap in favor of charter schools in Washington.

It turns out that Hoxby's rebuttal to the American Federation of Teachers study was based on faulty statistics. In a telephone interview last week, the Harvard researcher acknowledged that she had used misleading data to measure the proficiency of public school students in the District, resulting in an unfair comparison with the charters. She attributed the mix-up to the difficulty of downloading data from different Web sites. New data provided by Hoxby showed a 7.4 percent advantage for the charter schools in math proficiency rather than a 40 percent advantage.

Nelson also acknowledged that he had mistakenly provided faulty data to The Washington Post, underestimating the proportion of low-income students in some District charter schools, which affects the comparison with regular schools. He stood by the data in his original report.

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