Callaghan: Real reform ignored amid battle over charter schools

By Peter Callaghan, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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It appears backers of the latest charter schools initiative have submitted enough signatures to place it on the November ballot. That success means we now get to watch both sides try to convince us that Initiative 1240 will result in, pick one: (a) the salvation of public education or (b) the destruction of public education. It's odd, then, that something with the power either to transform or to destroy should inspire so much passion in some but so little in everyone else.

I think Washington state should allow charter schools as 41 other states already do. These are public schools that are organized and managed to allow a large degree of independence from state and local school district rules. Opponents deride charter schools, calling them "experimental." A lawyer trying to persuade a judge to change the ballot title for I-1240 even said it would turn students into "lab rats." Of course, lab rats don't volunteer and the students many charter schools serve are already failing.

Charter schools will not touch very many students. The ideas that have come out of successful charter schools nationally have not been scaled up to help most of our kids. There is no evidence that they are harmful to the rest of the school system, either. So both sides are wrong about charter schools — advocates oversell the benefits; opponents exaggerate the threats. Why then, do they take up so much time and space and money?

Rather than focus on issues that matter far more than charter schools, the Washington Education Association will once again try to convince us that charters are the first step to the end of public education. The WEA just can't resist yet another opportunity to paint reformers from the business community as corporate privatizers who hate unions.

Advocates feed that rhetoric. Bill Gates, who helped create Microsoft, donated more than $1 million to allow I-1240 to collect 350,000 signatures in just 18 days. Microsoft's other founder Paul Allen, who is a donor this year as well, footed the bill the last time charter schools made the ballot. Venture capitalist Nick Hanauer is among the handful of funders of I-1240.

All feel certain that charter schools are transformative, even though they have existed for up to two decades in states that continue to suffer failures similar to those that Washington schools do. Those failures include high dropout rates, growing achievement gaps for minority students, too much remediation for too many students who make the jump to college unprepared, and embarrassingly low success rates in math and science.

A recent essay in Education Week by Marc Tucker ("Why Business Leaders Need to Go Back to the Future") explains the difference between business-led education reform in the 1980s and now. Thirty years ago, executives including Boeing's Frank Shrontz and Puget Power's John Ellis wanted to reform the entire education system. To them, it was an economic issue because they were finding it harder to recruit workers who could read, write, compute and think. These people were familiar with large organizations and accepted the bureaucracies and internal vested interests that made change slow and difficult, Tucker wrote.

The present-day reformers are entrepreneurs who made their riches not by managing large corporations but by demonizing and outmaneuvering them. These finance and technology success stories have less patience with institutions, no time for rule makers. "Rather than work within the education system, they tend to support people and entities that work outside the system or work hard to challenge it," wrote Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy. Charters are an extension of that sentiment.

Gates, Hanauer and others have worked substantive reform issues including setting higher standards for students, creating more accountability for the adults, and assuring a high-quality corps of teachers and principals. Perhaps if I-1240 passes, backers can return their full attention to such reforms that matter much more.