Sub-par options: Charter schools as a class don't measure up

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Now that the test scores for Pennsylvania charter schools have been recalculated, parents and taxpayers will be able to make more of an apples-to-apples comparison with the performance of traditional public schools.

Until the U.S. Department of Education stepped in last year, charter schools in the state were evaluated under a less rigorous method, as if they were school districts and not individual schools. With that formula, 77 of the 144 brick-and-mortar charter schools, 53 percent, achieved Adequate Yearly Progress on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests in 2012. One of the 12 online charters, 8 percent, reached the same standard.

But the Pennsylvania School Boards Association filed a formal objection, justifiably, to DOE in October, arguing that the state Education Department should calculate charter schools' compliance with the No Child Left Behind Act the same way it does for traditional schools. The PSBA won the case, and after Pennsylvania re-ran the numbers using the other formula the difference was telling.

The state report released last week showed that only 43, or 30 percent, of the charter schools in buildings made AYP, while none of the cyber charters did. That compares poorly to the performance of traditional public schools, in which 1,460, or 50 percent, attained AYP.

Charter schools are publicly funded education alternatives to the conventional schools offered by a district. But it's not enough for them to have smaller class sizes, require uniforms, offer a themed curriculum or attract a more focused student body. They must deliver on academic performance in the same way that parents, pupils and taxpayers expect traditional schools to deliver.

These numbers show that the great majority of charter schools just don't measure up. While half of the traditional public schools falling short of AYP is nothing to boast about, it is difficult to argue that charter schools as a class perform better than their conventional counterparts.

Certainly a successful charter school is a choice well-made for its students. But it's galling to know that so many subpar charters are diverting public dollars away from traditional education.

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