Melissa Harris-Perry, 9/22/12, 8:00 PM ET

Should students, parents choose which school to attend?

Bloomberg View columnist Jonathan Alter; Derrell Bradford of Better Education; Lily Eskelsen of the National Education Association; and University of Texas...

Education experts debate the merits of charter schools

Updated

NBC’s 2012 Education Nation tour kicked off with a conversation about the viability of using charter schools to improve the American education system. While two of the panelists onstage for the discussion—msnbc contributor Jonathan Alter and Better Education for Kids’ Derrell Bradford—argued that charter schools were good for the country, National Education Association Vice President Lily Eskelson and University of Texas educational policy professor Julian Vasquez Heilig offered a more skeptical view.

“Here’s why you cap charters,” Heilig said during Sunday’s panel, moderated by msnbc’s Melissa Harris-Perry. “Because 83 percent of them do not perform better than our urban schools, our traditional urban schools.” He pointed to a recent study he had co-written on the charter network KIPP, which he said found, “about 40 percent of African American students left KIPP in Texas over the last ten years. That’s their dirty little secret.”

Alter questioned the validity of Heilig’s data, and suggested that charter schools offer a good site for testing new models of education. “The highly performing charters are schools that all schools can learn from,” he said. “So what I’d like to see more of is sharing of best practices between those charter schools that are working—and some of them don’t work, many of them don’t work—but the ones that are working have 90, 95 percent graduation rates in very impoverished neighborhoods. These are terrific schools.”

In a statement responding to Heilig’s study, KIPP said, “Vasquez Heilig relied on previous studies that claimed KIPP achieves results through high student attrition, while completely ignoring findings from the independent research group Mathematica that KIPP loses fewer black male students than neighboring district schools.”

Charter school proliferation has been a hot topic of debate lately, and it was one of the major factors that caused the Chicago Teachers’ Union to go on strike earlier this month. One Chicago public school teacher, John Kuijper, told Lean Forward that charter schools in Chicago were helping to create a “two-tiered” education system.

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Education experts debate the merits of charter schools

Updated