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new study commissioned by the Department of Education, which compares the achievement of students in charter schools with those attending traditional public schools in five states, has concluded that the charter schools were less likely to meet state performance standards.
In Texas, for instance, the study found that 98 percent of public schools met state performance requirements two years ago, but that only 66 percent of the charter schools did. Even when adjusted for race and poverty, the study said, the charter schools fell short more frequently by a statistically significant amount.
The study added new data to a highly politicized debate between charter school supporters, including senior Bush administration officials, and skeptics who question the performance of the publicly financed but privately managed schools.
Deputy Education Secretary Eugene W. Hickok minimized the report's significance even as he released the results. But academics who have been critical of charter school performance called it an important contribution.
"In five case-study states, charter schools are less likely to meet state performance standards than traditional public schools," the report said. Those states, Texas, Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts and North Carolina, all have made significant public investments in charter schools.
The report's finding appears to present a new complication for the Bush administration as it seeks to carry out the No Child Left Behind law, which says that public schools failing to meet achievement objectives over several years may be converted into charter schools.
"How can we consider charter schools to be an option for dealing with failing public schools when this study, commissioned by the Department of Education, shows that about half of them don't appear to be doing any better at meeting performance standards than other public schools?" asked Gary Miron, a researcher at Western Michigan State University who has written a book on charter schools.
The study also provided new statistical data showing that charter schools, which tend to be located in cities, serve higher percentages of minority youths than traditional public schools, but fewer special education students. African-American students made up 27 percent of charter school students in the 1999-2000 year, compared with 17 percent in regular public schools, the report said. Some 21 percent of charter students were Hispanic, compared with 15 percent in regular schools, it said.
Paul E. Peterson, a professor of government at Harvard who has written frequently of the benefits to parents of offering new choices, including charter schools and vouchers, called that finding a significant contribution to the educational debate that "confirms that charter schools are identifying and serving a disadvantaged population."
Dr. Peterson cited the high number of minority students in charter schools as evidence that they are not "creaming," or recruiting a preponderance of easy-to-educate, talented students. Their higher populations of minority students, he said, help to explain the report's conclusion that charter schools were less likely to meet state achievement standards than regular schools, he said.
"When you have targeted a needy population, you will have more difficulty reaching state standards," Dr. Peterson said.
The report found that in two states, however, Texas and Colorado, even when allowances were made for race and poverty, the charter schools were still less likely to meet state standards than regular schools.
Charter schools have gained considerable popularity among some parents and educators since 1992, when the first one was created in Minnesota. A new survey, by the Center for Education Reform, a Washington group that supports charters, says there are now about 3,300 of the schools, operating in 41 states, educating nearly one million students. Still, they are a relatively minor force in the nation's overall kindergarten through high school education effort. There are about 90,000 traditional public schools, educating more than 50 million students.
The new study is the third and final report on a broad examination of charter schools, commissioned in 1998 by the Department of Education in the Clinton administration. Conducted by SRI International, a research firm in California, the final report was delivered to the department in June, its authors said. The department did not make the 127-page report public until Friday afternoon, after The New York Times filed a Freedom of Information Request last month to obtain it.
Susan Aspey, a spokeswoman, said the department had released the report "as fast as we could."
Dr. Hickok, in a statement accompanying the report, said, "As can be evidenced by their growing popularity, charters are an important educational option'' for the students who attend them. . Noting the finding that charter schools were less likely to meet performance standards than traditional public schools, he said the study "does not mean that traditional schools are outperforming charter schools or vice versa."
"The study is a snapshot, and it is impossible to know whether charter students are catching up or falling behind," Dr. Hickok said.
The study follows several recent efforts to track charter performance, including a report by the American Federation of Teachers, which showed students in charter schools lagging behind their public school peers on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Advocates of charter schools, including Education Secretary Rod Paige, criticized that report for generalizing about charter schools, which offer extremely varied educational programs in states from Massachusetts to Oregon.
Partly in response to the A.F.T. report, a Harvard economics professor, Caroline M. Hoxby, sped up release of a study she had been conducting comparing students in charter schools nationwide with students in the nearest neighborhood school, and with the closest public school with a similar racial makeup.
She found charter students were 4 percent more likely to have mastered reading and 2 percent more likely to have mastered math than students at the neighborhood schools. The proficiency levels increased by one percentage point in each subject when she compared charters to local schools with a similar racial makeup. Dr. Hoxby's strongest findings were in Washington, D.C.
Her report also provoked debate, with charter supporters praising her methods and findings and other researchers, who have tried to replicate her data, criticizing her for excluding some Washington charter schools from her study set and using a lower measure to determine success in charter schools.
Another recent study of charter schools in Washington, where 17 percent of publicly educated students attend charters, found that charters were somewhat more likely to enroll low-income students than regular public schools, less likely to enroll students with limited English, and as likely as traditional schools to enroll disabled students, said Mark Schneider, a political science professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and a co-author. The study was financed by the National Science Foundation.
The new Education Department report found that 43 percent of charter students were from low-income families, compared with 38 percent in regular public schools nationwide. Nine percent of charter students were disabled, compared with 12 percent in regular public schools, it said.
The new report attracted immediate criticism from groups representing charter schools.
Dan Gerstein, a spokesman for the Charter School Leadership Council, an umbrella group, said it "sheds no light on the actual performance of charter schools or the value they add to student learning" because it did not include measurements of the evolution of student achievement over several years at charters.
"In this respect it probably clouds the picture rather than clarifies it," Mr. Gerstein said.