Five Big Questions

By Thomas Hutton

Fifty-one years after Thurgood Marshall's legal victory in Brown v. Board of Education, a charter school bearing his name is having a momentous year of its own. The first class of seniors at the Thurgood Marshall Academy will graduate in June, and the Washington, D.C., school will occupy its own facility for the first time this fall.

These developments are exciting for me personally, because I was part of a group of Georgetown University law students who founded the school. But as someone who supports charters, I have seen a number of developments over the past year that, while significant, are more disturbing than gratifying.

In 2004, California's Charter School Academy abruptly closed all 60 of its schools, leaving families, teachers, attorneys, and district, state, and law enforcement officials scrambling. To make matters worse, the group's unpaid creditors reportedly have shown interest in seeking payment not from the charter organizers but from local taxpayers.

Even more troubling was the news on the academic front. Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shows traditional public schools marginally outperforming charters. The same results are obtained even when controlled for low-income children in urban schools, and the difference is more significant when scores are excluded for special education students, who tend to be underrepresented in charters.

As an attorney for the National School Boards Association, I always hasten to point out that such tidings obscure the success some high-quality charter schools have in meeting students' needs -- just as headlines about persistent achievement gaps obscure the gains public education has made in the face of extraordinary challenges.

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