Editorial

OP-ED:Yakima Herald-Republic, October 16, 2004
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Referendum 55, Charter Public Schools Would Help Kids

By SENATOR JIM HONEYFORD

On Nov. 2, Washington voters will be asked to approve Referendum 55, a measure that would help improve our public schools. Before you vote on R-55, please consider the following: According to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, 30 percent of our students drop out before graduation. Minority students fare worse, with more than 50 percent dropping out.

Referendum 55 would give local communities an effective tool to help public school kids who are falling through the cracks. R-55 would let communities convert persistently failing public schools into tuition-free, charter public schools, which are more accountable to parents and the community. These schools help improve academic achievement through innovation. They encourage parental involvement, and they curb costly bureaucracy.

Charter public schools are making amazing strides in helping underserved students in 40 other states. For example, charter public schools in Colorado have outperformed other public schools in nearly every area while serving high percentages of minority students in traditionally urban areas. In the Chicago area, 12 out of 13 charter public schools are outperforming traditional public schools on standards-based tests, and are averaging an 83 percent graduation rate compared to 62 percent at Chicago's public high schools.

There are countless more examples of how charter public schools are not only giving underserved students an opportunity to learn, but to excel in their academic achievement. Washington state should join the rest of the country in improving public schools by approving R-55 in November.

R-55 would not take money away from public-school students, would not raise taxes, and would in fact increase school funding in local communities. Student funds from failing public schools would follow students to the charter public schools that replace them, just as student funds follow students when they move to another public school in the district. Approval of R-55 also would allow Washington state to get our share of more than $200 million a year in federal funds earmarked exclusively for states that authorize charter public schools. This year alone, California received $25 million and Oregon received $5 million.

Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature carefully drafted R-55 to ensure it included local control, accountability, and achievement provisions proven most effective in other states. Under R-55, a maximum of 45 new charter schools can be opened in Washington state over the next six years. R-55 is a better and more measured approach to charter public schools than we've seen in the past.

There would be local control under R-55. Local school boards would be required to hold public hearings to review charter public school applications before they are approved. Qualified charter public school applicants must be non-profit and non-religious organizations. They must have a plan to help educationally disadvantaged students and ensure that student academic performance standards and requirements meet or exceed state requirements. Applicants also would be required to provide detailed information about their operations and demonstrate solid fiscal standing.

Local school boards could appoint a member to sit on the board of the charter public school, and the school must report to the local school board at least once a year. Under R-55, charter schools must pass independent performance audits, unlike other public schools.

Approving R-55 would give Washington parents, teachers, and communities another tool to help increase academic achievement for all children and help solve the unacceptable dropout rate in our state. R-55 would ensure accountability and performance. It would not take funds away from public-school students and would not raise taxes. Approving R-55 would bring millions of dollars of federal funds into our state so that all our children have the best opportunity to learn.

Charter public schools are no longer a new idea or an experiment. They would increase the ability of our education system to help the most underserved students.

Supporters of R-55 include Bill Gates, the Washington Roundtable, the Association of Washington Business, the bipartisan chairs of the Senate and House education committees, and a diverse group of educators, parents, and teachers throughout Washington state. Please join us in improving our public schools by approving R-55 on Nov. 2.

State Sen. Jim Honeyford, a Sunnyside Republican, is GOP caucus chairman in the state Senate and a retired public-school librarian. He wrote this column in conjunction with the Approve R-55 campaign (www.ApproveR55.org).

Copyright, 2004, Yakima Herald-Republic. All Rights Reserved.

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