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Public charter schools should be an option in Washington, too

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on Oct. 25, 2011 at 7:48 pm |
October 25, 2011 3:51 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

The state PTA has gotten tired of waiting for Superman.

Last week, it mounted a new and welcome push to persuade the state to reconsider public charter schools, an educational option common in most other states but forbidden – stupidly forbidden – in Washington.

The history is not promising. Washingtonians have twice defeated proposals for public charter schools at the polls, and the Legislature has repeatedly refused to allow them.

As the PTA recognizes, this makes no sense whatsoever. Virtually all serious education reform movements in this country advocate charter schools as one tool in a toolbox of strategies that might help struggling school districts.

The operative word is “might.” Not every district needs the option, and not every charter school proposal is worth consideration. But forbidding them categorically – a policy that helps keep Washington in the rear echelon of education reform – is just plain dumb.

Public charter schools have long been the subject of dueling studies; some reviewers have found they outperform conventional public schools in certain places, others have found that they under-perform them elsewhere.

But broad surveys lump together a host of differences. Look inside the numbers, and you find that sloppily run charter schools fail their students – as any sloppily run school would – while tightly run and supervised charter schools often help disadvantaged schoolchildren thrive.

On the whole, good charter schools are especially effective in helping low-income students succeed. The good ones share identifiable traits; it would not be rocket science to require that any such school established in this state meet those standards.

The usual suspects are jerking their knees against the PTA’s advocacy. Said Mary Lindquist, president of the Washington Education Association, “We can’t fund the schools we have. Who thinks this is the time to put public money into experimental schools?”

Actually, an economic downturn seems an especially good time to see if we might get better returns from our limited school dollars with new approaches.

The best charter schools can serve as incubators of promising ideas that could be transferred to other schools. They can also specialize in reaching particular groups of disadvantaged children who could benefit from the specialized attention.

And speaking of funding education, Washington’s ban on public charter schools was a big reason the state was frozen out of millions of “Race to the Top” dollars the Obama administration offered to states that looked serious about reform.

Washington not only didn’t look serious, it looked positively hostile to change. To be one of a handful of states that forbid even a single charter school in a single district that might benefit from the option? Put on the dunce cap and go sit in the corner.

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