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Ignore the bloviating by right-wing lawmakers, people; Arizona's traditional public schools still outperform charter schools

The coup is almost complete and most o' y'all slept through it.

After two decades of legislative chicanery, malfeasance, incompetence and the misuse of public funds that should have landed several people in prison, we are now being told that the Arizona charter-school "movement" is a success. Except it isn't.

I know, I know, here he goes on charter schools again. Why the hate? Unfortunately, because people are busy and worrying about making it from week to week, the pattern goes like this:

Right-wing Legislators: "Charter schools are the greatest thing ever!"

The People (armed with the truth): "No, they're not!"

Right-wing Legislators: "Charter schools are the greatest thing ever!"

The People (armed with the truth): "No, they're not."

Right-wing Legislators: "Charter schools are the greatest thing ever!"

The People (armed with the truth but late for work): "Aw, the hell with it."

Well, I'm not going to say "the hell with it." Charter schools are NOT the greatest thing ever. They never have been and, despite some incredibly cynical moves by Republicans in the state Legislature, they never will be. Oh, there will always be individual success stories, like that of AP Test-factory Basis, but articles touting the improvement of charter schools notwithstanding, the fact remains that charter schools, on average, do not perform nearly as well as the traditional public schools to which they are adjacent.

For the past few years, charter-school critics have pointed to a Stanford University study that pretty much showed the performance as abysmal overall and pretty much across-the-board worse than traditional public schools. The Stanford group recently did another study and concluded that, in some states, charter school performance is improving. That shouldn't come as a surprise. When you start sucko, your only options are staying sucko or becoming less sucko.

According to the updated Stanford study, what once was abysmal is now simply really bad. Hurrah! Among the findings in the new report is that while the 2009 study showed that 37 percent of charter schools were providing a substantially worse education than local public schools, that figure is now 31 percent. That would be cause for celebration were it not for the fact that, in the years between the two studies, 8 percent of all charter schools closed due to bad performance.

I'm going to go slowly here in case any of Al Melvin's buddies are reading this. If you cut off the bottom 8 percent of any statistical sample, the quality of what remains must go up (although not necessarily by 8 percent). In this case, the percentage of poorly performing charter schools improved by just six points. That's hardly a reason to cheer. The fact remains that less than a third of charter-school students outperform their public-school counterparts in math and the improvement over the past four years has been the same for both groups.

There was a time, back during the jogging/running craze of the late 1970s, when women's distance-record times were falling at an astounding rate as more women took up serious running. Between 1970 and 1980, the world's-record time for women in the marathon went from 3:02.53 to 2:30.27. That's a drop of more than a half-hour and cuts nearly 18 percent off the record time. During that same period, the men's record went from 2:09.28 to 2:09.01, a drop of 27 seconds or 0.3 percent.

I remember there was this flurry of quasi-scientific articles that looked at comparative graphs and concluded that the women's record would someday be better than that of the men because the women's graph line had a steeper slope. Alas, they were using incomplete data and making false assumptions. (Maybe they worked on political campaigns and figured that if one line was showing great improvement, then the other one would have to be showing a decline and they would have to meet at some point.)

Such is obviously not the case. Over the past 30 years, the women's record time has improved by about 10 minutes, to around 2 hours, 15 minutes, while the men's has dropped by more than five minutes, to around 2 hours, 3 minutes. However, the women's record hasn't been broken in more than 10 years; the line has flattened out for a decade. For the men, the record has dropped by a couple of minutes during that time. The two lines may someday grow closer together, but it's highly unlikely that they'll ever meet.

So it is with charter and traditional public schools. Having started at the bottom, charter schools are going to show an upward trend. But, despite the infusion of private money and the disgusting (and perhaps unconstitutional) preference being shown them by state legislators, charter schools will almost certainly not overtake traditional schools.

To be fair, the report did note that in some limited areas some charter schools are actually outperforming their public-school counterparts. However, in most of the 25 states in the study, charter schools were doing worse—or even much worse—than public schools. And on that list of states where charters were substantially inferior: Arizona.

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