In Our View: Try Charter Schools

Legislators will present another bill this year, inspired by programs in 42 other states

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Would charter schools improve public education in Washington state? The answer that we provided in a 2004 editorial remains the same eight years later: We won’t know until we try.

Charter schools in a wide variety of formats exist in 42 states, but not in Washington, Alabama, Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and West Virginia. Voters in our state have rejected charter school ballot measures three times since 1966. Chief among opponents has been the teachers union, the Washington Education Association.

But the issue has surfaced again in this year’s Legislature. State Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, and others have said they will introduce a bill that would allow up to 50 charter schools in Washington, with no more than 10 new schools per year, according to a recent Associated Press story.

Now that the state Supreme Court has affirmed what the state constitution proclaims — that basic public education is the state’s paramount duty — proper pursuit of that goal requires innovative thinking. That’s one reason charter school projects elsewhere have been supported by Seattle’s Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. And that’s why charter schools should be tried in Washington.

Actually, our state’s stubborn resistance to charter schools could work in our favor. We can benefit from what those 42 other states have learned in at least three ways described by Robin Lake, a researcher at the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education. First, the state would make sure charter schools are opened by people who know what they’re doing. Second, there would be rigorous oversight based on specific expectations. Third, charter schools that don’t succeed would be closed.

The proposal Sen. Tom and others are formulating would likely focus on educationally disadvantaged children. The schools’ renewal rates would be based on success rates. Although results around the country have varied greatly, many charter schools have been successful in urban settings. Lake said, “We do have an unforgiveable achievement gap (in test scores among different ethnic groups and income levels) and a graduation rate that needs to be addressed. … In most states, charters are an important piece of the reform strategy because they bring in new ideas and new energy. It’s part of the mainstream options (in those states) for public schools now.”

Consider two polarized outcomes on the continuum of possibilities. Suppose a charter school is stunningly successful by all measurements. Students, parents, teachers and taxpayers would demand more of them. The state would be pressured to expand charter schools into other areas of a community. Everyone would win under that scenario.

But suppose a charter school fails. First, parents would vote with their feet, and take their kids out of that school. By terms of the contract, that charter school would be closed. Closure would be more swift than is possible (and hardly ever seen) in today’s system, where some schools seem to be entrenched in mediocrity.

Outside-the-box thinking is what led many school districts to, first, experiment with specialized or “magnet” schools and, second, expand their use. That same philosophical open-mindedness should guide Washingtonians’ attitudes about charter schools. Our children deserve the same ingenuity that benefits public school students in 42 other states.