Charter schools have taught us much. Since Minnesota enacted America's first charter law in 1991, 39 states have followed suit and eager school reformers have created some 4,000 of these independent public schools. About 3,600 are still operating today, enrolling approximately a million kids, 2 percent of all U.S. elementary and secondary pupils. More than a dozen cities--including Detroit, Cleveland, and Milwaukee--now have charter sectors that serve at least one in every six children. These numbers rise annually--and would balloon if the market were able to operate freely, unconstrained by legislative compromises, funding and facilities shortfalls, and local pushback from the school establishment and its political allies.

The first lesson is that the demand for alternative school options for children is intense--and plenty of people and organizations are eager to meet it wherever policy and politics allow them to. In Dayton, Ohio, today, more than a quarter of all kids attend charter schools; in New Orleans (a special case, to be sure) it's seven out of ten children. Many schools across the nation have waiting lists.

Lesson Two: Though critics warned that charters would "cream" the best-parented, ablest, and most fortunate youngsters, actual enrollments are dominated by poor and minority kids, ex-dropouts, and others with huge education deficits unmet by regular school systems--most often the urban school systems whose residents most urgently need decent alternatives.

Lesson Three: Whereas boosters and advocates, myself included, once supposed that charter schools would almost always turn out to be good schools, reality shows that some are fantastic, some are abysmal, and many are hard to distinguish from the district schools to which they're meant to be alternatives. Merely hanging a "charter" sign over a schoolhouse door frees it to be different but doesn't assure quality--or even differentness. Those running the school need to know what they're doing--and be good at doing it. Too many well-meaning (or, sometimes, greedy) folks set out to create charter schools that they aren't competent to run.

Lesson Four: Until recently, nobody in charterdom paid enough attention to the other side of a school's charter, namely, its "sponsor." We now realize that a charter is best viewed as a contract between two parties: the school's operator, typically a local nonprofit organization (which may ask a national firm such as Edison Schools to manage its school), and the school's sponsor, typically a public body that licenses the school to operate, usually for a limited term (often five years) renewable on the basis of satisfactory results. The sponsor is responsible for determining whether the would-be operator has a plausible school plan and the wherewithal to put it into operation; then for monitoring the school's actual performance and blowing the whistle if it's inadequate. Too few sponsors have done this conscientiously--hence too few bad charters have closed, even as many potentially strong schools haven't been allowed to open.

Lesson Five: Although school-choice enthusiasts, myself included, insist that parents can be counted on to make wise education choices for their children, the charter-school experience shows that many families lack decent comparative information about their school options and that many are content with such school attributes as safety, convenience, a welcoming atmosphere, and "caring" teachers. In other words, the school's academic effectiveness doesn't rank high. Which means many parents enroll their kids in academically mediocre schools, cheerfully keep them there--and oppose all efforts by sponsors and state or local officials to put such schools on probation, close them down, or deny them renewed charters.

These five lessons help to explain the wildly inconsistent and often disappointing articles and studies that have emerged recently with regard to the academic performance of charter schools. These institutions, in fact, differ so profoundly from one another that placing the label "charter" on a group of schools connotes no more than the word "public," "private," or "elementary." How can analysts combine an academically rigorous "Core Knowledge" primary school; a long-day, long-year "KIPP Academy" for middle schoolers; and a four-hours-per-day remedial-instruction program for semi-literate 17-year-old dropouts? They're all charter schools, yes, but that's all they have in common.

Thus when the New York Times declares, as it did in August, that a new federal "study of test scores finds charter schools lagging," readers are misled (see here). Even when the analysis is limited to fourth- and eighth-graders, thus omitting the "dropout recovery" quasi-high schools, it lumps together schools whose only shared feature is the name "charter." Above all, it tells us absolutely nothing about these schools' academic effectiveness because the data used by such studies are one-time, snapshot test results that may show how youngsters currently perform on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) but nothing about how far they have come since entering these schools.

Let me illustrate. The federal study found that the average fourth-grader in district-run public schools had a 2003 NAEP "scale score" in reading of 217 while the average charter-school fourth-grader scored 212. Obviously the district pupil is scoring five points higher than the charter student; snapshots are fine at showing this. But how were those two kids doing when they entered their present schools? Suppose the district pupil was at 211 at the outset of the year while the charter student was at 204. You could then fairly say that the district school added six points to its student's reading prowess during fourth grade while the charter school added eight--even though the charter pupil's score remained lower at year's end.

A similar argument is being waged with regard to the federal government's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act, due for renewal by the next Congress and already the subject of analysis and advice from innumerable experts and state/local officials--all of whom want to see it amended in various ways. Although NCLB's full-fledged reauthorization may await the 2008 presidential election (Congress can easily extend "current law" a year at a time), its critics are nearly unanimous in urging that it shift from gauging schools solely in relation to fixed "proficiency" standards and instead allow states to employ a "growth model" whereby school performance is judged by how much students learn from one year to the next.

My view is that mega-accountability systems such as NCLB should evaluate schools both ways. Determining how much "value" they add to their pupils is crucial--but so is knowing how well prepared their students are to meet the challenges posed by the real world of colleges and employers, typically more interested in a person's actual skills and knowledge than in how much progress he may have made.

For charter schools, it's doubly important to deploy measures of effectiveness as well as absolute performance. For these are all schools of choice that parents move their daughters and sons into instead of keeping them in district-operated schools. These youngsters have been ill-served where they were and deserve a second chance in a better school. If their parents are to make discerning choices, however, they need clear information about which schools are effective at imparting skills and knowledge to their students, not just which of them enroll pupils who possess such skills and knowledge.

Such comparisons require some sort of before-and-after testing. You can't get that from NAEP, but such data now exist at the state level thanks to NCLB's mandate that students be tested annually in reading and math (in grades three to eight). States then have an obligation to analyze these data and produce report cards on charter and district schools alike--in parent-friendly formats. Where this is done with care, we often find that charter schools look good. For example, a recent analysis for the Massachusetts Department of Education, tracking student growth over four years in charter schools versus their surrounding districts, found the charters superior in math and equal in English. It's worth noting that Massachusetts is famous in charterdom for its scrupulous school sponsorship, punctilious about which may open, and then watchful regarding their performance. It's also worth noting, however, that union-inspired state politics have imposed a tight cap on how many charter schools may operate and how many kids may attend them--meaning that Bay State residents have far greater demand for charter slots than school operators can meet.

Does the success of Massachusetts imply that policymakers must trade charter quantity for school quality? The nation's capital makes the best case for answering no, with its 25 percent charter-school market share and some of the best charter schools in the nation (as well as some that you wouldn't want to send your kid to). Rather than look to Washington for its education-policy debates, perhaps the media should look at the "other" Washington, the one where people live, and see the charter schools that are creating education hope for families and neighborhoods that otherwise lack it. They will see some lessons that are highly relevant for ill-served students across the land.

This essay originally appeared in the October 9th issue of National Review.

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