On average, students in charter schools lag behind their peers in traditional public schools, and the black and Hispanic students among them perform even worse, says a high-profile national report released Monday.
The findings were even less flattering for Florida, a leading state in charter school enrollment.
Black students, bottom-tier students and top-tier students in Florida charter schools all perform "significantly worse" in reading and math than their peers in other public schools, says the study by Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes, an outfit many education experts regard as procharter.
"Despite promising results in a number of states and within certain subgroups, the overall findings of this report indicate a disturbing — and far-reaching — subset of poorly performing charter schools," the report says.
Florida is a leading state in the charter movement, with 389 charter schools and 117,000 students enrolled in them. But the response from T. Willard Fair, chairman of the Florida Board of Education, was literally, "So what?"
"We're doing (charter schools) because parents have the right to have a choice, the same kind of choice of educational options that other parents do," said Fair, who co-founded Florida's first charter school in 1996 with former Gov. Jeb Bush. "If they enroll their students in a charter school that's underperforming, they have the right to transfer them to another school."
Charter schools are publicly funded schools run by educators, businesses, community groups or nonprofits. In return for greater accountability, they're given flexibility from many regulations. The hope is they'll spur innovation and competition — and ultimately bring better results for kids.
The Stanford report comes just as charter schools are gaining a bigger spotlight. Some charters, most notably the KIPP chain, have won glowing publicity for unprecedented success with struggling students. President Barack Obama has praised them.
But there is little evidence about the performance of charters overall. And there remains widespread concern that states are not doing enough to filter out marginal charter applicants before they start or to shut them down quickly when they flounder.
The Stanford study, based on standardized test results from 2,400 charter schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia, is the most in-depth look at charters to date. To compare, the researchers matched every charter student in the study with another student in surrounding public schools with the same race, income and test scores.
The result: Forty-six percent of charter schools offered a comparable education to similar public schools, 17 percent offered a superior education and 37 percent offered an inferior one.
"We find that a pretty sobering finding," said Margaret Raymond, the study's lead author.
It shows "charter schools are not the panacea they often are made out to be," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, in a written statement.
But at the same time, it "creates a national imperative to scale up as many of those successful (charters) as we can," said Bryan Hassel, a Harvard-trained education consultant who has studied and criticized Florida's let-1,000-flowers-bloom approach.
The Stanford study wasn't all negative.
It also found that high-poverty students and students who speak English as a second language perform better in charters; students in elementary and middle charters are making bigger gains than their traditional public school peers; and by their third year, students in charters are doing better than their peers who remain in traditional public schools. The study did not attempt to answer why.
In Florida, many charter schools are humming. The Learning Gate Community School in Lutz, which offers an environmentally based curriculum, earned its sixth A in a row last year. The arts-centered Academie Da Vinci in Dunedin annually ranks among the top schools in Pinellas.
But other charters skirt the edge. Between 1996 and 2007, 100 charter schools in Florida closed, including 11 around the Tampa Bay area.
In Hillsborough, Metropolitan Ministries Academy, a charter school for homeless students, gave up its license last week. And the district has told four other charters that they're on the brink of being shut down.
State Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey, said Florida's efforts to beef up oversight of charter schools in recent years has made an impact. He pointed to a recent Florida Department of Education analysis that shows Florida charters now have a higher percentage of students reading at grade level than other public schools. (The DOE did not analyze test data in the same way as the Stanford study did.) "It was not a policy of quantity over quality," said Legg, who co-founded the Daysprings Academy charter in Pasco. "But (years ago) there was no criteria to judge quality charter schools when they opened up. Now there is."
Gayle Neithamer hasn't looked at the Stanford report, but he's not surprised.
Last year, the St. Petersburg resident chose Imagine charter school over a neighborhood school for his 8-year-old son, who struggles with reading. He and his wife heard only good things about charter schools. They didn't hear anything good about the neighborhood school.
But their son has continued to struggle. And now they're looking to put him in the neighborhood school after all.
"We thought he'd get a better education at a charter school," Neithamer said. But they're not sure he did.
Times staff writer Tom Marshall contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873.