Washington News

September 15, 2009

Charter school debate is worth revisiting
Actions have consequences. That’s one of life’s tough lessons.

This state’s steadfast refusal to allow charter schools is going to have a financial consequence. Washington is one of 11 states without charter schools, and that puts this state at the back of the line when it comes to receiving more than $4 billion in federal education grants.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, acting on behalf of President Barack Obama, has made it clear that states willing to embrace charter schools and other favored innovations will get preference when it’s time to award grants. States that refuse to comply may well end up shut out of the money.

Gov. Chris Gregoire says this state might have a shot at some of the education reform dollars, but admits Washington will receive less money than if we had a charter schools law.

Gregoire, who recently talked with Duncan about the federal funding, is hoping to convince the education secretary that Washington has other creative education programs and is willing to change.

“The secretary was clear, that’s what they’re looking for — nontraditional schools that allow students to excel,” Gregoire said. “I would like to show him some of our alternative schools and get his feedback.”

Charter schools are generally elementary or secondary schools that receive public funds, but don’t have to meet the rigorous regulations imposed on traditional public schools. The charter schools generally rise or fall based on measurements of their success — expectations that are spelled out in the school’s charter.

Washington voters rejected charter schools three times in eight years. In 2004, voters repealed a charter school law based in large part on a well-financed campaign fostered by the statewide teachers’ union. Opponents of charter schools argued that charter schools would take only the best and brightest students — and the funding that goes with them — leaving the public schools to educate at-risk and troublesome students.

In this state, public school teachers also oppose charter schools because the charter schools often hire non-union teachers. And school district administrators frequently oppose charter schools because the charter schools use public dollars but operate independently and out of the direct control of the local school board.

It’s clear that opposition to charter schools, and the support of the status quo, have financial repercussions that will cost this state dearly.

Supporters of charter schools — Secretary Duncan and President Obama among them — believe charter schools are key to turning around failing schools, in part because charter operators have a big motivation for boosting student achievement. If students don’t do well, the schools can be shut down.

Charter schools also can keep kids in school longer, offer more one-on-one attention and use different ways of teaching to adapt to different learning styles, supporters say.

At the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools Conference this summer, Duncan called the charter movement “one of the most profound changes in American education — bringing new options to underserved communities and introducing competition and innovation into the education system.”

Secretary Duncan has made it clear that those states that have embraced charter schools — 39 out of 50 — will be at the front of the line for federal education grants.

Gregoire hopes to convince him that Washington has used innovative schools to increase student academic performance and keep at-risk kids in the classroom.

In this community, South Sound High School in the North Thurston district and Avanti High School in Olympia, are pointed to with great pride for their success in helping students advance. And just last week, North Thurston opened a new middle school — Aspire — which has a strong emphasis on the performing arts.

But charter school groups and education experts say creativity might not be enough and Duncan might decide to use states like Washington as an example of what happens for an unwillingness to embrace educational flexibility.

Todd Ziebarth, vice president for policy for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said he thinks states such as Washington are “in for a rude awakening,” when the federal education dollars don’t flow into state coffers. If nothing else, the funding issue should force educators, parents and taxpayers to revisit the charter school proposal. Is this financially strapped state willing to forgo much needed federal dollars in order to keep charter schools at bay?

That’s a discussion worth having.

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