Washington News

HeraldNet.com, October 21 , 2009

Washington shouldn't say no to schools innovation

By Richard S. Davis

The $4.35 billion Race to the Top Fund provides a powerful incentive for Washington to join the education mainstream. More discretionary money than the feds have ever made available, the funds will be awarded to states to spur and support eduction reform. To the White House, much to the consternation of its erstwhile fans in the teachers’ unions, reform includes charter schools.

Where the unions see a threat, Washington charter school advocates recognize an opportunity.

Fawn and Jim Spady have been this state’s indefatigable charter school champions. This year, they’ve launched Kids First Washington to promote charter school legislation in the 2010 session.

“We’re trying to build the largest coalition ever to support the ... legislation,” Fawn Spady says. “People who want to put kids first.” She believes the state stands to gain $200 million to $400 million in federal money.

We’ve been here before. Washington voters have rejected charter school proposals at the ballot three times since 1996.

Fortunately, there’s no three-strikes-and-you’re-out limit on good ideas. Reformers rarely succeed at their first at-bat. Perseverance and persuasive powers eventually pay off. And, sometimes, as now, circumstances conspire to hand you an offer too good to refuse.

In an op-ed last July, Education Secretary Arne Duncan made clear his intent to use the fund to shape state policy. The money will be released in two stages, “allowing first-round losers to make necessary changes and reapply.”

Duncan also wrote, “states that ... cap the number of charter schools, will be at a disadvantage.” Charter schools are alternative public schools — not private schools — set up by teachers and parents. Freed of much of the regulation and bureaucracy, charter schools face the same accountability standards plus a market test. If they fail to perform, they go out of business.

Currently, Washington caps the number of charter schools at zero. Gov. Chris Gregoire told Northwest Public Radio last month that she thinks the criteria are “too narrow,” adding that charter schools are not the “be-all, the end-all.”

No. They’re simply a choice we should have and don’t. There’s nothing radical or unproven about them. Currently, 1.4 million students are being educated in the 4,600 charter schools operating in 40 states and the District of Columbia. Just 10 states, including Washington, ban them.

Sounding a bit like Gregoire, the National Education Association faults the administration for concluding “that charter schools are the only answer to what ails America’s public schools.” Perversely, in the next paragraph, they “urge the administration to ... embrace the diversity of choices available to students, parents, school districts, and states.”

So the NEA supports a “diversity of choices,” as long as all the alternatives wear the union label. (Charter school teachers often don’t belong to a teachers’ union.) The NEA’s state affiliate opposed charter measures on the ballot here in 1996 and 2004, taking no position on the initiative in 2000.

Money may not be enough to win them over. A year ago, the Washington Education Association cost seven schools in our state $13.2 million in grant money from the National Math and Science Initiative because the grant required merit pay for the teachers involved.

With the state facing multi-billion-dollar budget shortfalls in the years ahead, the group may want to reconsider its recalcitrance.

Meanwhile, the evidence of charter school success continues to mount. A recent study of New York City schools compared the performance of students who won a lottery to attend charter schools with other applicants who landed in the traditional system. Citing the research, the Washington Post editorial board concluded, “Opponents of charter schools are going to have to come up with a new excuse. They can’t claim any longer that these non-traditional public schools don’t succeed.” The charter school students scored higher on math and reading tests. The longer they attended, the better they did.

If Washington ends up a “first-round loser” later this year, the 2010 Legislature will have millions of reasons to embrace charter schools to qualify for second-round funding. But even if we somehow get the money, they should act swiftly to join the mainstream. Charter schools make good sense.

Richard S. Davis writes on public policy, economics and politics. His e-mail address is richardsdavis@gmail.com.

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