Charter schools offer state a fresh approach to education

September 24, 2012 

The Washington public school system needs more innovation, especially to meet the needs of low-income, high-risk children from communities of color struggling in traditional public schools.

Initiative 1240 provides an avenue for inventive approaches to education through a cautious experiment with high-quality charter schools.

Voters should approve this initiative.

Approval of I-1240 would permit the establishment of no more than eight charter schools statewide each year for the next five years. The initiative requires the state board of education – the final authorizing entity after a comprehensive process – to give preference to schools “designed to enroll and serve at-risk student populations.”

Charter schools are merely public schools released from traditional bounds. Charter schools can, for example, change their school calendar independently of the school districts in which they reside. They can strategically alter class sizes, and hire and fire teachers based on performance or school priorities.

Charter schools cannot be formed or operated by for-profit education ventures, nor have any religious influence. They are free, open to all students, and must employ teachers who meet all the same certification standards required in traditional schools.

If more students apply to attend a charter school than its capacity, the students will be selected by lottery to ensure fairness and compliance with parents’ rights, civil rights and nondiscrimination laws applicable to all school districts.

Critics of Initiative 1240 have pointed to the uneven performance of charter schools in the 42 other states that now permit them. It is true that states with the weakest charter school laws have underperformed.

But states that built tough enforcement standards and annual performance reviews into their laws, as I-1240 does, have found charter schools outperform traditional schools. Under I-1240, charter schools must meet the identical academic benchmarks and student performance assessments as traditional public schools.

Opponents of I-1240 often cite a Stanford University study stating that only 17 percent of charter schools outperformed traditional schools while 37 percent performed worse.

But that criticism conveniently overlooks two important conclusions of the Stanford study: one, public charter school effectiveness is directly related to the quality of the authorizing and oversight process; and, two, public charter schools achieved better results with low-income, high-risk kids in urban environments.

Initiative 1240 answers both objections. It is based on the strongest and most effective legislation from other states, and it is specifically designed to target the children for whom the Stanford study found charter schools to be the most effective education model.

Critics also fear charter schools will reroute state funding. But charter schools are public schools. If students currently attending private schools returned to the public education system, it would automatically increase public school funding because the state allocates funds on a per-student basis.

Opponents make a point, however, that there are economies of scale by containing the current school population within existing physical buildings. A new school would add incremental expenses for utilities and janitorial services, among others, that do not already exist.

This is a concern. But I-1240 allows for existing schools to be converted into charter schools, and there are enough underutilized school buildings around the state to potentially mitigate this problem.

Traditional public schools have been slow to embrace ground-breaking approaches to education because, unlike charter schools, they are bound by numerous bureaucratic regulations. In separate bills last year, the Legislature ordered the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to identify schools employing bold and creative ideas, and outlined a process for creating more-innovative schools.

That effort should continue within the traditional school framework and might also benefit from the ideas employed by charter schools, if the initiative wins voter approval.

School districts that already have high-performing schools using an array of educational options won’t need charter schools. Nor should charter schools be seen as the silver bullet that eliminates all the challenges facing today’s educators.

Initiative 1240 takes the best legislation for public school innovation available and aims it at a very specific target. It hopes to lift up the state’s lowest-performing schools and inspire the most at-risk students.

It deserves voter approval.

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