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Commentary By Charles Upton Sahm

Sad Attack on Schools That Work

Education, Cities Pre K-12, New York City

Opponents of New York’s charter-school revolution count it as a real coup to have prestigious education historian Diane Ravitch in their camp. But her arguments on this front fall short of her usual standards.

As the lead witness in state Sen. Bill Perkins’ hearing on charter schools last month, Ravitch offered the same anti-charter spin as in her new book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System.”

Ravitch began her testimony dismissing charters because they only enroll 3 percent of students. But New York’s first charters opened just 10 years ago and since then have enjoyed exponential growth, jumping from 16 schools in the city in 2001 to 47 schools in 2005 to 99 schools this year.

Plus, Ravitch opposes lifting the cap on the number of charters statewide -- that is, she’s fighting their expansion even while she’s arguing that they enroll too few students.

And that 3 percent figure masks the real impact of these schools. Charters were created to offer better options in communities where traditional public schools are failing. In Harlem, for example, parents for decades had to send their children to public schools that ranked among the city’s lowest-performing. Today, 20 percent of children in Harlem attend charters, including some of the city’s best-performing schools.

Ravitch next testified that charters are ineffective -- and again cherry-picked her data. She gleefully cited a 2009 study of charters in 16 states by Stanford researcher Margaret Raymond, which found mixed results on charters nationally. But it excluded New York -- and Ravitch glossed over the fact that Raymond applied the same methodology to New York City and found that charters here perform “significantly better.”

As Raymond wrote in The Post the day before the Perkins hearing, “Nearly a third of New York City charter schools outperform their local peer schools in reading and more than half do so in math.” She noted that very few charters perform worse than nearby public schools and that “the rest of the nation can learn from New York.” (Raymond was invited to present her research at the hearing but wasn’t called upon to testify once it became clear that she’d offer a pro-charter message.)

Ravitch also testified that the federal NAEP tests showed “no significant difference” between charter and non-charter students. Again, other analysts have found otherwise -- and, anyway, the fact that charters hold their own against statewide and national averages should be regarded as a success, not a failure: After all, charters largely serve poor, minority children in urban areas -- a far more challenging mix of students.

Nor did she reference any of the research that found positive outcomes for charters, including economist Caroline Hoxby’s much noted 2009 analysis of New York’s charter schools. In that study, Hoxby estimated that students who attend a New York City charter school from kindergarten through eighth grade would close 86 percent of the “Scarsdale-Harlem achievement gap” in math and 66 percent of the gap in reading.

At the hearing as in her book, Ravitch assailed “wealthy lawyers and hedge-fund managers” for supporting charters, which she claims harm regular public schools. Curiously, she cited as evidence a March 9 New York Times article that offered a generally positive portrayal of how traditional public schools in Harlem, spurred by the competition of charters, are working hard to improve.

Ravitch’s condemnation of charters is particularly bizarre because she was once a forceful advocate for the “schools of community” that New York’s best charters embody: schools with content-rich curricula that include literature, science, history and cultural-enrichment programs; safe, orderly schools with great teachers and extended class time where each child is valued and given individual attention.

The bottom line: Charters are successfully educating kids in communities where traditional public schools have failed for decades. In Harlem, nearly 20 percent more charter students meet state math and reading standards than do students at traditional public schools.

As the state Assembly decides on whether to lift the charter cap, it needs to take a fair-minded, objective look at the performance of New York’s charters. In her book and in her recent testimony, Diane Ravitch doesn’t provide that.

This piece originally appeared in New York Post

This piece originally appeared in New York Post