Charter schools should ignite change for the better

I applaud the Tacoma School Board for signaling an interest in becoming a public charter school authorizer. It’s time that our community learned more about public charter schools.

We need to know how top-performing public charters advance student achievement in other states. We can learn from the best how to raise student achievement for at-risk and low-income students, especially the large share of black and brown students who are struggling academically in Tacoma.

We can debate the merits of public charter schools forever. Meanwhile, our traditional public schools are serving some of our kids well, but clearly not all of our kids:

 • Six out of 10 Tacoma students graduate high school in four years

 • Six out of 10 Tacoma grads go onto college

 • Of those who go to college, many require remedial classes to gain high school math and English skills before they can take college-level courses.

Key education leaders in our city are working hard to improve these numbers. They need a full range of options at hand. The board understands that public charters could be an important part of the mix. Charter schools are not a silver bullet. But, they can disrupt the status quo and drive community-school collaborations that radically raise student achievement.

Successful charter schools thrive on a delicate balance of flexibility and accountability.

In 41 other states across the country, public charter educators have leveraged that flexibility to create innovative learning environments, apply new curricula, use new teaching methods, change the school calendar, and offer richer student supports, including:

 • Longer, flexible school days. Charter schools establish their own operating hours, which might include later starts and classes in the evening, on weekends, and the summer.

 • Stronger emphasis on key subjects. Some charters offer two class periods on the same day in the same subject – often mathematics – to focus more time on subjects that can make or break a student’s academic future.

 • Unique school focus. Charter schools often stimulate student engagement and passion by adopting a theme, such as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), cultural heritage, performing arts, or project-based learning.

In exchange for greater flexibility to innovate, public charters are held to rigorous accountability standards, including annual performance reviews. In Washington, any public charter that fails to raise student achievement will be forced to close.

Traditional public schools that fail to raise student achievement should face the same consequences.

The new charter law allows the creation of 40 charter schools over five years. Realistically, we won’t see the first school open until fall 2014-15.

We have a lot of work ahead to get ready for these new schools.

I chair the Black Education Strategy Roundtable. At 6 p.m. April 24th, at the Federal Way Educational Service Center, we’re hosting a meet-and-greet with two newly appointed Washington Charter School commissioners – Trish Millines-Dziko, and Steve Sundquist. All are welcome.

The commission is the independent state agency charged with reviewing applications and authorizing schools to operate. The commission also is tasked with holding these schools to the highest standards of accountability and oversight.

Join us to learn more about public charters and the opportunities they offer every Washington student.

Our community is long past accepting small, incremental gains in student learning. The days of hoping for better are over. Kudos to the school board for acting quickly and considering innovation in every form that can help kids, including public charter schools.