11/30/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Washington Post --Union Buster?

On September 27, 2009, the Washington Post, ran an editorial, "Charter Success." It carried a sub-headline, "Poor Children Learn. Teachers Unions Are Not Pleased." It began "Opponents of charter schools are going to have to come up with a new excuse: They can't claim any longer that these non-traditional public schools don't succeed." It went on to call the results of the study it was summarizing "remarkable." It concluded, "now the facts are in."

Are they? And are they remarkable? The short answers are "no" and "no."

The study was conducted by economist Caroline Hoxby, the only person in the whole country who consistently finds results that favor charters. Here are a few cogent items about the study:

  1. Many of the data that would be needed to draw conclusions are not presented.
  2. The study is limited to New York City.
  3. The study has not been peer reviewed.
  4. The study was published by a pro-charter advocacy group staffed with people who used to work in charter schools.
  5. The editorial writer, Jo-Ann Armao, lacks the background in econometric research to actually know how to interpret the study. She was, therefore, engaging in faith-based editorializing but passing it off as evidence-based.
  6. Even if the study proves to be sound (unlikely according to some other researchers who have also looked at it), it is only ONE study. Strong conclusions in any field should never be drawn on the basis of only one study.

I sent this information to the Post's Ombudsman who replied that he only deals with news, not editorials. Ms. Armao, on seeing my post to the Ombudsman, sent an email saying that obviously I did not really want to engage her on the issue. That was true. I wanted a retraction. So I sent it to Ms. Armao's boss, editorial page editor, Fred Hiatt, who replied, "It's even harder to 'engage' with an 'expert' who would rather trade in personal insults."

Other relevant information:

My own work in the field--a 2005, 61-page paper summarizing the research of others, not doing any original work--found a number of studies showing poor charter school performance ("Charter Schools' Performance and Accountability: A Disconnect.").

In June, 2009, another study of charters--this one more of a national look-- concluded that 46% of charters did no better than comparable public schools, 17% outperformed the publics and 37% did worse. "We've got two bad charter schools for every good one," said Margaret Raymond, the Stanford University researcher who conducted the study. Raymond has been known as a charter supporter so her willingness not to flinch in the face of these data is admirable. Would the FDA approve a drug that had adverse effects twice as often as positive effects?

The Washington Post did not cover this study either as a story, an op-ed, or an editorial.

Because it had published an op-ed touting charters about a week prior to Ms. Armao's love letter, I sent a letter to the editor on September 23 pointing out the above finding and wondering why Ruth Marcus, normally one of the Post's best op-ed people, Arne Duncan and President Obama would be touting such a failed reform, forcing states to lift caps on charters to get stimulus money.

My letter was not published.

On September 30 2009, the Wall Street Journal published a piece on Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, with these closing sentences: "He (Duncan) also backed a union-led move in Congress to slash federal funding to a group of charter schools in Washington, D. C. He acknowledges that many charter schools have shown shoddy results." So the Secretary of Education, a charter supporter, acknowledges what the Washington Post will not. (These sentences were dropped in later editions because, according to Neil King, the WSJ reporter who wrote the piece, he wanted to end with a point about state funding which he thought was more germane. Hmmm.).

Of course, the true purpose of this editorial was given away in the sub-headline. The Post has joined in a grand game of teachers union busting.