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Washington’s two types of schools

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.
Ola Bailey, a pre-kindergarten teacher at Meridian Public Charter School, enjoys story time with her students.
Ola Bailey, a pre-kindergarten teacher at Meridian Public Charter School, enjoys story time with her students. Marvin Joseph / The Washington Post
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

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 today when 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.

Around 3,300 nationwide
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.

'A mixed picture'
Jeffrey Henig, a Columbia University professor of education, bemoaned "a rush to print" by researchers who want to be part of a topical debate. Henig said his own research into District charter schools showed "what anybody would find if they are being honest — a mixed picture."

The academic feuding seems oddly detached from the ground-level reality at Meridian, which is housed in a converted laundry at 14th Street and Florida Avenue NW. Administrators and parents concede that the school has experienced significant growing pains in the last five years, as enrollment grew from 84 students in 1999 to 585 today.

During that period, the for-profit school has gone through three principals and two management companies. It introduced an entirely new math and reading curriculum this year, in an effort to raise disappointing test scores. Despite the turmoil, parents have remained remarkably loyal, viewing the school as safer and more welcoming than many of its traditional competitors.

"Meridian's test scores may not be as high as Garrison's, but the school is newer," said Frank Padgett, who heads the parent-teacher association. "Things are getting better every year." Padgett said he decided to enroll his two children at Meridian because he was impressed by Principal Robinette Breedlove, who had "a passion I didn't see in a lot of other principals I met."

Teachers at Meridian say that test results are only one imperfect measure of how a school is doing. "There's a lot more parent involvement here than there," said Ola Bailey, a Meridian preschool teacher who previously worked at Garrison. At Garrison, a half-dozen blocks away at 1200 S St. NW, enrollment has been dropping steadily for two decades. Administrators cite flight to the suburbs, the gentrification of the area and competition from charter schools. Just 316 students remain in a building designed for almost twice that number, down from 356 when Geneva Williams took over as principal two years ago.

The 40-year-old building seems in better repair than many District public schools. Even so, it is beginning to show its age.

Williams insists that the students go to the restroom in pairs because it is impossible to know for sure who is walking around the cavernous building, despite the guard at the entrance. She has instituted a strict school uniform policy and is proud that teacher turnover is low. Many veteran teachers prefer regular public schools to the charter schools, citing better benefits and job security.

In contrast to Meridian, Garrison has met its "adequate yearly progress" target on standardized tests for the last two years, placing it in a select group of District schools that are in compliance with requirements of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act. As a regular public school, it is also obliged to pay more attention to special education students. Some children with special education needs have switched back to Garrison after trying nearby charter schools.

"The charter schools persuade parents to enroll their children by saying everything is going to be better, but that's not always the case," said Gwendolyn Brown, a special education teacher who withdrew her child from a District charter school because she believed he was not receiving enough individual attention.

For all the heat generated by the school choice debate, researchers agree that much depends on parents' preferences and the quality of individual teachers and principals. "I would never claim that every charter school is better than every regular public school," said Hoxby, the Harvard economist.

As he attempts to make sense of an ever-growing pile of data, Nelson goes somewhat further. "In the end," the AFT researcher said, "it's a draw."