Washington News

March 3, 2009

Washington View: Obama, Jindal both right about charter schools


Both President Barack Obama (D) and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) spoke of the need for more charter schools in their televised addresses to the nation in late February. Their agreement illustrates that prominent Democrats and Republicans can agree charter schools are improving student learning and should expand.

Charter schools are nonsectarian public schools of choice that operate with freedom from many of the regulations that apply to traditional public schools. The "charter" establishing each school is a performance contract. The basic concept of charter schools is that they exercise increased autonomy in return for clear and specific accountability.

Unfortunately, Washington is one of 10 states that don't yet authorize charter schools. In 2004, the Legislature passed a law, but charter opponents such as the Washington Education Association, League of Women Voters, other labor unions and many school boards bankrolled Referendum 55 to repeal the charter schools law. Unfortunately, they won.

According to then-WEA president Charles Hasse in a Nov. 2004 Web posting: "In general, charter schools in other states have failed to outperform regular public schools and have not lived up to their supporters' promises."

Really? Tell that to President Obama, Gov. Jindal and thousands of educators who point to the improvements in student performance and behavior at charter schools.

President Obama has told Congress that charter schools are a way to improve learning. He singled out Capital City Public Charter School in Columbia Heights as an example of what's working in education, citing the school's innovative approach and the active involvement of parents.

Less than 10 years old, the school serves 244 students in grades Pre-K through 8 and is widely regarded as one of the best schools in Washington D.C. This year it expanded to include high school. When visiting Capital, the President said, "We're very proud of what's been accomplished at this school, and we want to make sure that we're duplicating that success all across the country."

Gov. Jindal highlights what's happening in his own state of Louisiana. Before Hurricane Katrina wrecked havoc on New Orleans, the public schools were failing miserably. Now Jindal points to Louisiana's burgeoning charter schools with pride. In the years since Katrina, New Orleans has the highest percentage of students in charter schools among U.S. cities. That's happened partly in response to the challenge of rapidly redeploying a shattered system. It's also being done in hopes of improving historically miserable test scores and high dropout and expulsion rates.

"There's definitely a hope that the post-hurricane experience in New Orleans will show that public charter schools can work at scale, particularly for those students who have struggled historically," says Todd Ziebarth, a policy analyst at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, in a Christian Science Monitor article.

For example, in 2006, 91 percent of the fourth-graders at McDonogh-15, a charter school in New Orleans' French Quarter, passed their end-of-year tests, compared with 51 percent of students in the city's public schools. To help students who have missed classes catch up, the school day runs until 4:30 in the afternoon, and students attend school every other Saturday.

Success elsewhere

The same success, particularly among minority students, is being replicated in the charter schools of Oakland, Calif. California, the second state in the nation to adopt charter schools, now has 750 such schools across the state serving 276,000 students. In February, the California Charter Schools Association reported that minority, poverty-level and English Language Learner students in Oakland's charter public schools are outperforming similar populations in public schools at all grade levels.

In fact, the California Department of Education reports that 12 of the 15 top-performing public schools in California serving children in poverty are charter schools.

Hopefully, with the President's prodding, Washington will revisit charter schools and at least set up a few pilots around the state to see if they can help students learn. Isn't that what education is all about?

Don Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business, Washington state's chamber of commerce. Visit www.awb.org

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