This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.
The middle of an economic crisis is not the time to stop fixing public education. On the contrary.
A legislative push for new school reforms – including charter schools and greater teacher accountability – met with instant resistance this week from the usual suspects.
Singling out the bill to authorize a handful of charters – which are oddly easy to demonize in this state – the Washington Education Association issued a statement describing the measure as a “distraction from the real debate.” The real debate, naturally, is about pumping billions of dollars the state doesn’t have into a K-12 system that doesn’t work well enough.
Charter public schools are hardly the most important reform out there, but they do serve as a barometer of a state’s willingness to give every possible option to parents and children.
The highly motivated educators who typically launch charter schools sign a contract – the charter – that commits them to meet specified standards and gives them leeway to reach those goals.
These schools are hardly novelties anymore; they are legal in most states and common in many. Most of the public schools in New Orleans are chartered now. Across the nation, they routinely enroll disadvantaged students who are trapped in low-performing districts and don’t have the money for private academies.
One nice thing about charter schools is that their charters can be revoked – quickly – if they don’t deliver on their promises. Traditional schools are not bound by contracts; when they fail, they are too often allowed to go on failing and failing.
Charter schools are hardly a panacea. Washington could have a fantastic public education system without them. The problem is, it has neither. It has an inexcusably high dropout rate, especially among blacks and Latinos. It also has a miserable record of getting high school graduates into the college and technical training they need to succeed in the job market.
The WEA and other members of the old guard talk as if trainloads of cash would fix everything. In fact, pouring fortunes into the status quo would reinforce failure.
Washington’s schools do need better funding – but their need for better thinking is more fundamental and more urgent. Especially when money is tight and every possible advantage must be wrung out of every precious dollar.
The schools need a bundle of reforms. Principals and teachers need better evaluations and more accountability. Measures of student improvement based on objective performance data must be part of that accountability.
Students shouldn’t be falling into a chasm between the public schools and higher education – the two systems should be integrated. Educational experiments – including hybrids of classroom and Web learning – should be more common, not less.
It should be far easier to remove from schools the small minority of teachers who can’t effectively teach. Ability, not seniority, should drive layoff and assignment decisions.
These are all more important than charter schools. But a K-12 establishment that won’t tolerate a single charter school – not one – is never going to tackle the genuinely hard stuff.