Charter schools following an upward trajectory

The News TribuneDecember 4, 2013 

Washington is getting its first glimpse of what public charter schools will look like in this state.

Eight of them are to be launched next year under Initiative 1240, approved by the voters last year. Three nonprofit organizations propose to open schools in Tacoma; another nonprofit seeks to create one near Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

A collection of anti-charter groups is trying to strangle these schools in the cradle with a lawsuit now in Thurston County Superior Court. Its attempt to prevent even one from opening – anytime, anywhere in the state – seems almost unhinged. It suggests that opponents don’t fear that the schools will fail, but that they’ll succeed.

Charter schools may be a novelty in Washington, but they’ve become a standard fixture of American public education since the first was opened in 1991.

Twenty-seven states – including the country’s largest – now authorize them. They enroll an estimated 2.3 million kids. In New Orleans, nearly 80 percent of public school students attend charters.

They have a track record. The Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University – the most rigorous and neutral authority – watches them closely.

Charter opponents crowed in 2009, when Credo published an extensive study indicating that the schools, on the whole, were doing no better than their traditional counterparts – and in some cases were doing a whole lot worse.

But Credo expanded and updated its study this year, and painted a much brighter picture:

 • On the whole, the nation’s charter students were doing substantially better in reading than their peers in traditional schools.

 • Charters had been lagging non-charters in math performance; now they’ve nearly closed the gap.

 • They are proving especially good at what may be becoming their niche: educating black, poor Latino and other disadvantaged students.

 • The rising performance has been partly driven by the closure of failing charter schools. That’s a good thing. Try to shut down an underperforming traditional school.

Bad charter schools tend to be located in states with lax charter laws. Initiative 1240 is a strong law, and Washington has had the luxury of observing which kinds work in other states and which don’t. The state can be picky.

One of the nonprofits seeking to open in Tacoma, Summit Public Schools, has been notably successful in teaching minority students. Its Summit Preparatory high school in Redwood City, Calif., is nationally recognized for excellence and was featured in “Waiting for Superman.”

Like alternative schools, charters play a small but important role in the ecology of public education. Washingtonians who are genuinely concerned about the disadvantaged shouldn’t be in a frenzy to dismantle them.

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