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Grade for charter schools? 'Needs improvement'

Without safeguards, they could become martyrs in the reform movement, instead of pioneers.

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With the start of the fall semester upon us, President Obama has made charter schools the mainstay of his education reform movement. Although such schools are heavily promoted, concerns need to be addressed before their potential to shape a new course in US education can be fairly evaluated.

Charter schools represent a compromise for taxpayers who are frustrated over the glacial pace of improvement by public schools despite the expenditure of $667 billion on K-12 education last school year, up from $553 billion the prior year.

Publicly financed but operating free of many of the regulations applying to traditional public schools, they have grown in popularity since the first charter school began in Minnesota in 1991. They now total 4,600 nationwide and educate some 1.4 million of the nation's 50 million public school students.

Yet despite the claims made by supporters, a study released in June by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., casts doubt on whether the academic performance of students in charter schools is any better overall than that of their peers in regular public schools.

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