Charter schools: Not a cure-all, but a sign of health

Other education reforms are more urgent than charter schools. Washington could have a fantastic public school system without them.

But we don’t have a fantastic system, and one of the reasons is a reactionary K-12 establishment that can be counted on to resist efforts to bring rigorous standards and greater accountability to public education.

Charter schools aren’t a magic cure for all that ails the schools, but the fact that they are prohibited here – while allowed in the vast majority of other states – is another symptom of the backwardness of “progressive” Washington.

Initiative 1240, which would legalize charters in Washington for the first time, has just officially qualified for the ballot. The usual suspects are lining up against it, notably the Washington Education Association – which tore into the measure like a pit bull the moment it got traction.

The WEA’s mother organization, the National Education Association, takes a more nuanced position on charter schools. Here’s a line from its position paper:

“NEA believes that charter schools and other nontraditional public school options have the potential to facilitate education reforms and develop new and creative teaching methods that can be replicated in traditional public schools for the benefit of all children.”

The NEA does qualify this endorsement. It ’s a labor organization, and its job is not to shrink its local affiliates. It more or less insists that charter school faculty be unionized – “subject to the same public sector labor relations statues as traditional public schools.”

Still, the NEA makes the case for charters as eloquently as their advocates do. Though many of these nontraditional schools have performed poorly, many others have done a superb job – and the good ones in urban districts have proven especially adept at teaching disadvantaged low-income and minority students. They do develop new ways to reach struggling students, and traditional schools can profit from them.

As for the bad ones, charters can be revoked. The public can easily pull the plug on a failing charter school. It’s hard to even find the plug on a failing conventional school.

The most disturbing argument against charter schools in Washington is the claim that this state’s public schools are doing fine without them. Hello? In many districts – emphatically including Tacoma Public Schools – our students are not doing just fine.

In Tacoma, the dropout race is catastrophic among blacks, Latinos and children of low income. If you factor in the academic deficiencies of those who do graduate and the sheer loss of life potential, it amounts to a massive social tragedy.

In an emergency this grave, serious people will grab every tool in sight to turn things around. Washington should be frantically improving its schools of education, recruiting and rewarding the most talented teachers, identifying and helping struggling teachers, ratcheting up academic expectations, relentlessly tracking the performance of individual students, and adopting objectively proven best practices for effective teaching.

The most important reforms can be achieved without charter schools – but charters are an indicator that education leaders are willing to do whatever it takes, willing to pull every lever within reach. A state that forbids the opening of even a single one is a state that’s way too comfortable with an intolerable status quo.