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An important story of the week past about public schooling reveals a lot about the ongoing dismal state of affairs regarding how we think about education in our country. As we debate technical matters of who can do what and where in schools, and as entrenched interests fight to protect turf, our children – and particularly our children from poor families – remain the sad and pathetic victims.

The widely covered story, which broke on the front page of the New York Times, reported on the first comparison of test results of kids in charter schools with kids in traditional pubic schools. The report, done by the American Federation of Teachers from data compiled from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, concludes that charter-school performance lags behind that of other public schools.

The test results show, according to the Times story, that “only 25 percent of the fourth-graders attending charters were proficient in reading and math, against 30 percent who were proficient in reading and 32 who were proficient in math, at traditional public schools.”

The big news and conclusion here, according to remarks from an AFT spokesperson, is that the “sunny claims” of charter-school advocates do not appear to stand up to the scrutiny of the test results. Charter schools, as a magic bullet for solving our problems with schools and education, do not seem to be all that they’ve been trumped up to be.

It is hard, of course, not to have a sense that the AFT is pleased by what it reports. As a teachers union, the organization cannot be enthusiastic about charter schools, where private management has a wide range of flexibility in decision making, including hiring nonunion teachers. So, a victory for the status quo and a defeat for innovation is a victory for the AFT.

Various credible analyses quickly came forth after the release of the AFT study, challenging its methodology and conclusions and giving good reason to believe that the AFT study is far from the last word on this matter. However, the attitude of the AFT and the general manner in which this story has been reported and received tell us more about the nature of our problem than do the data and conclusions in the report.

Public education – charter and otherwise – is in bad shape. Although the data in this particular study seem to point to results in the charters lagging behind the traditional public schools, let’s not lose perspective that the results in both are terrible. When we are reporting that less than half of kids tested are proficient in reading and math, this is a crisis. This fundamental point seems to be have been lost in the reporting the news comparing charter and traditional school results.

Despite the considerable innovative leeway that is given to charter schools, let’s not forget that we do not have anything that approaches freedom and a free market in education. Charters provide a framework for flexibility, but true freedom would open many more dimensions and possibilities for innovation, both in content and form. Although no one disputes that the success of a child’s education reflects the child’s home life as well as the child’s school life, we have severed the fundamental link that ties these two worlds together: values. Teaching moral values and self-control are off limits in the curricula of charter schools as well as public schools.

Consider a fascinating new study recently released by the National Foundation of American Policy that shows that the top prizes in math and science to high-school students are being awarded to foreign-born students. In major national competitions, 60 percent of the finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search, 65 percent of the top scorers in the U.S. Math Olympiads, and 46 percent of the U.S. Physics team are children of immigrants.

The U.S. Physics team consists of 24 of the top high-school students who are selected through a nomination and testing process. From among these, five students are selected to represent the United States in the International Physics Olympiad. Two of the five students who will represent the United States this year in the competition, which will take place in South Korea, are immigrant children.

The NFAP study quotes the Russian immigrant father of one of these five: “I don’t like saying this but math and physics are not the strong side of American schools.” He says that from what he has observed in his daughter’s educational experience here, what U.S. students learn in 12th-grade math classes, Russian students study in eighth and ninth grades.

The U.S. education market should be opened up. The last thing we need, contrary to what the AFT seems to be saying, is to preserve our disastrous status quo. We need innovation. The United States has shown mankind that that nothing unleashes innovation and creativity like free markets. We cannot continue to insulate our most important problem – education – from our most powerful solution – freedom and its moral foundation.

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