OP-ED:The Seattle Times, October 16, 2004

The Gift of Choice


Twelve years, two failed appeals to Washington voters, and one vicious national debate separate the opening of the first charter school in Minnesota and the arrival of charter-school legislation in Washington state.

Legislators in Olympia narrowly approved House Bill 2295 last March, allowing charter public schools to operate in Washington but limiting their growth to 45 over the next six years. Before the measure was able to take affect, opposition groups swept up nearly 100,000 signatures, effectively suspending the legislation and pushing the measure to a November trial by popular vote. In a couple of short weeks, Referendum 55 will leave Washington's future as the 41st state to enact charter public school legislation in the hearts and minds of voters.

In a state known for its rigorous public school standards—read: the famed WASL tests—as well as for its perpetual struggle with funding, charter schools seem an intelligent, well-calculated risk for Washington's education community. It is a risk—or rather, opportunity—well worth it and long overdue.

As with any new endeavor, there are things to be feared, particularly when the endeavor involves not only massive amounts of state funding, but also the future of children, and consequently, the future health of our society. There is the risk that some charters will fail, that a shift in funding will hinder the traditional public school system, and that the efforts of long-established labor unions will be left at the door.

The potential gain, however, is too great to ignore. How can we refuse parents and students alike a choice in their educational future?

Current opponents to the charter-school legislation fear the method is unproven and thus a waste of assets. A recent report published in The New York Times and sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers (which is anti-charter schools) fosters such fears by claiming minimal success and even failure of charter-school students across the nation when compared with public-school students of the same age.

However, a similar, more in-depth study authored by Caroline Hoxby, an economics professor at Harvard University, examined children of the same age in 99 percent of charter schools across the nation. When compared with students in neighboring schools, Hoxby found charter-school students actually outperformed their public-school peers by a national average of 5 percent in state reading tests and an average of 3 percent in state math tests.

Individual state averages show even greater promise for the charter-school movement. In Arizona, second only to California in the number of charter schools statewide, students were 7 percent more likely to be proficient in reading and math, and in Illinois charter students were found to be 21 percent more proficient in math and 16 percent more proficient in reading than their public-school counterparts.

Clearly, the very general claim that charter schools are underperforming and unproven is without firm foundation.

Each state is free to determine the institution and government of charter schools within its borders. Studies have shown the trick to ensuring successful charter schools is the establishment of strong legislation. Those laws that offer flexibility and autonomy foster creativity and have a much higher success rate.

Referendum 55, and the bill behind it, has the chance to build upon the experience of other states and currently offer sound legislation capable of encouraging charter-school birth and growth without hindering the process with excessive rules.

Charter schools must be backed by strong legislation to be successful. This task, arguably one of the most difficult in the charter process, has already been done. Years of effort and debate produced a bill that passed in the Legislature last March.

Now voters have the opportunity to improve the quality of education in Washington state, or at the very least, introduce an idea capable of augmenting the student experience. Taxes will not be changed, tuition will not be charged, and those students at the greatest educational disadvantage stand to benefit the most. Charters deserve a chance, and parents and students deserve a choice.

Dana Dibble is an '04 UW graduate. E-mail: NEXT@seattletimes.com

Copyright 2004 – The Seattle Times

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