The headlines last week made it sound as if New Jersey's great charter school debate is over:

"Study: N.J. charters outperform traditional schools."

The study in question, by Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes, looked at five years worth of test data at just over half of the state's 86 charter schools.

It found that 40 percent of those charter schools reported higher math scores than the rest of the schools in their districts, and 30 percent reported higher reading scores. Those results are significantly better than charter schools in other states.

Dig a little deeper, and you find that the results are largely due to impressive gains in test scores by a handful of well-run Newark charter schools. Other urban charters, in Camden, Jersey City, Trenton and Patterson, scored no better - and often worse - than their districts' other schools. Students in rural charters also scored worse in math and reading.

So the take-away from the study is that some charter schools are successful in helping students achieve and some are not.

Not exactly earth-shattering, is it?

The Christie administration was quick to praise the report. Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf said, "The results are clear. On the whole, New Jersey charter school students make larger gains in both reading and math than their traditional public school peers."

Charter school opponents responded with familiar arguments - charters have fewer non-English-speaking students, fewer special education students and fewer students in deepest poverty, all of which skew test results.

But the real news here is that there is nothing magical or diabolical about charter schools.

Well-run charter schools can help students more than poorly run public schools. And well-run public schools can help students more than poorly run charters. The key in both cases lies in a school's programs and its approach to education, not its label.

As Rutgers University education professor Bruce Baker told the The Star-Ledger, "We're asking the wrong questions. We should be asking what works for different types of kids, not which is better, charter or district, when neither is a monolithic entity."

In that vein, there are some intriguing findings in the study, especially in Newark, where researchers said charter school students are receiving the equivalent of nine more months of math instruction and seven and a half more months of reading instruction than their public school peers.

Rather than simply beating the charter school drum and pursuing one-size-fits-all education policies, New Jersey education officials should increase their focus on closing charters that fail and sharing the methods of successful schools to help charter and noncharter school students throughout the state.

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