WA CHARTERS, Sunday, August 6, 2000.
The Seattle Times is the largest newspaper in
Washington state, and the Sunday Seattle Times (published jointly
with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer) is by far the most widely
read newspaper in the state in any given week.
Today's Sunday Seattle Times includes a very favorable
Op-Ed on the front page of the "Opinion" section (section
If you don't get the Times, please buy a copy
at your newsstand and cut out the article for future reference.
A electronic copy is at the end of this e-mail, for your convenience.
Also, if you receive this message in time, be
sure to videotape tonight's edition of CBS-TV's "60 Minutes."
It includes a rebroadcast of last September's show on the Knowledge
is Power Program ("KIPP") charter schools in Houston
and New York City. These schools, created by two young "Teach
For America" educators, serve students from poor, minority
families in urban areas, and are nevertheless among the highest
performing middle schools in their nation.
Thanks for all you do to bring the CHOICE of charter
public schools to the children, families and educators of Washington!
Jim & Fawn Spady, co-directors,
Education Excellence Coalition
4426 - 2nd Avenue NE
Seattle, WA 98105-6191
Jim office phone: 206/634-0589
Jim & Fawn home phone: 425/434-7440
I-729 campaign phone: 206/545-4900
I-729 e-mail address: JimSpady@WAcharterschools.org
OP-ED: THE CASE FOR CHARTER SCHOOLS
Seattle Times, Sunday, August 6, 2000, p. D-1
(Front page of Opinion Section) (1,349 words)
by James Harvey
Special to the Seattle Times
Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, is a man of remarkably
broad interests. He almost single-handedly demolished one Seattle
landmark (the Kingdome) while replacing it with another (the Experience
Music Project). And he helped invent an entire new industry out
of virtually nothing, in the process creating previously inconceivable
wealth in the Puget Sound area and bringing respect to nerds everywhere.
A man like that is capable of almost anything.
So when it was announced in May that he would
help put Initiative 729 on the November ballot, it was clearly
time to pay attention. Initiative sponsors submitted 306,361 signatures
to place the measure on the ballot. Signatures are still being
validated but only 179,248 are required to put the question of
charter schools before the voters.
I-729 is a horse of a different color from any
ballot question Allen has previously backed. It sets out to put
charter schools - schools that are publicly funded but largely
independent of the regular school system - in front of the voters.
This is a hugely unpopular issue in Olympia where
state Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, has with the tacit support
of the education establishment, held the fort against charter
schools. As far as the education community is concerned, when
it comes to charters, school leaders have reversed the words of
countless lyrics: Educators' lips say "Yes, yes, yes,"
but their eyes say "No, no, no."
Initiative 729 looks like simplicity itself. It
proposes to permit up to 80 charter schools in the state over
the next four years, about twice as many as the legislation that
died in the Legislature last spring. While there are many reasons
to support it, five stand out, beginning with the simple observation
that our education system is in trouble.
The system's broke.
The case for charter schools starts with the proposition
that the system's broke and needs to be fixed. It's that straightforward.
Reasonable people may disagree about the causes. Take your pick
of the villains - recalcitrant unions, cheap taxpayers, obtuse
school boards, dysfunctional communities, hidebound bureaucracies,
incompetent teachers, federal meddlers, rapacious business leaders,
or irresponsible parents. But almost nobody involved will put
themselves in the line of fire anymore by defending the performance
of today's schools. It's become so bad that even teachers' union
leaders have given up on the status quo.
Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation
of Teachers, recently proposed adding a fifth high-school year
to help hundreds of thousands of failing students meet new standards.
Conceivably, it might help. But it's hard to believe that adding
a 14th year to the 13 that have already failed will make much
difference - or that students or parents will sit still for it.
Choice is a basic American value.
Before the term "charter" came into
vogue, Feldman's predecessor and union legend Al Shanker argued
for choice in public schools every time he got the chance. We
ought to retain only the school regulations governing health,
safety, and civil rights, suggested Shanker, and encourage practically
unrestricted choice for teachers and students. Why? There were
a lot of reasons he said, beginning with the political reality
that the public was getting fed up. If educators didn't make these
changes on their own, he warned presciently, they would be forced
to accept them. But in a larger sense, Shanker also appealed to
the better angels of our nature. Why choice? "Because it's
a basic American value," he liked to say.
A few years ago, a study of 1990 Census data released
by researcher Denis Doyle indicated that city school teachers
were more than twice as likely as other parents to send their
children to private schools. Nationally, about 4.5 percent of
all parents are public-school teachers, according to Doyle, and
they are slightly less likely than other parents to send their
children to private schools.
But in urban areas, the proportion of teachers
sending their children to private schools skyrockets:
In 69 of the largest U.S. cities, public-school
teachers are more likely than other parents to send their children
to private schools;
In three cities (Grand Rapids, Jersey City, and
Honolulu) more than half of public school teachers send their
children to private schools;
In two others, Miami and Newark, rates of private
school attendance for teachers' children are twice as high or
more than rates for all children (nearly 40 percent of teachers
in Newark and more than 30 percent of Miami teachers send children
to private schools).
In Seattle, 31 percent of public school teachers
with children enroll at least one child in private school, substantially
above the average of 25 percent for comparable teachers in the
30 largest cities.
Charters will be good for American education.
Opponents assume that charters will destroy public
schools. Proponents have little to say about that, preferring
to concentrate on the benefits to students. This is troubling
ground to leave exposed, since the general public, despite its
concerns about educational quality, tends to believe in local
public schools and has no intention of hurting them. Leaving aside
for the moment the issue of whether or not a charter school is
a "public" school (and I assume that it is and that
it is publicly accountable), I believe there's some reason to
believe that charters can help improve public schooling generally.
About 10 years ago, analyst Charles Glenn looked
into school choice in six nations (Australia, Belgium, France,
Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Germany). He concluded that
the availability of parental choice has a positive effect upon
the quality of schooling. That makes sense. In the market of educational
ideas, competition is a good thing. Everyone accepts it as a good
thing in higher education. Why wouldn't it also be a good thing
in public education?
More surprisingly, Glenn concluded that choice
increases societal support for schools by reducing the level of
conflict over the purposes and control of schools. In the midst
of fierce partisan and ideological debates about the role and
purposes of public education in the United States, opponents of
choice have argued that it will ring the death-knell for public
education as we know it.
They have it exactly backwards, according to Glenn.
It turns out that choice is a sort of safety valve, on both the
left and the right, for people who feel so strongly about education
that they are willing to wage ideological war over its basic premises.
By minimizing conflict over the nature of the education offered
at individual schools, choice, paradoxically, increases societal
support for public education generally.
Charters will make all public schools better.
There's a related reason, too. Charters will encourage
competition within public education.
A lot of people are horrified by that idea, but
I'm not. That's the whole point.
David Kearns, former chief executive officer of
Xerox, used to say that until the Japanese started driving Xerox,
Motorola, Detroit's Big Three and other corporations to the wall,
a lot of these companies acted pretty dumb and happy. Public schools
have been acting that way, too.
The loss of patronage and income is a necessary
first step toward improving any low-performing institution, whether
it makes copiers, televisions, or automobiles - or provides a
service such as educating the public's children.
I rather suspect it's reasons such as these that
have encouraged Paul Allen to enter the charter wars. He's got
a lot of company. President Clinton and the two candidates vying
to succeed him, Al Gore and George Bush, back charters. Politicans
in nearly 40 states have reached the conclusion that the U.S.
has gone about as far as it can with a centralized education system
that tries to ensure quality through credentials and regulation;
they're willing to bet that charter schools will unleash a lot
of educational creativity.
Perhaps Jerry Brown, a former governor of California
who is now mayor of Oakland, put it best recently at a seminar
in Washington, D.C. Speaking at the Brookings Institution, Brown
attacked what he called "an adaptation to pathology that
is a wonder to behold" in urban schools. "Parents are
smart," said Brown. "Let them choose."
James Harvey, a Seattle writer, and David T. Kearns,
former chairman and CEO of the Xerox Corporation, are co-authors
of "A Legacy of Learning: Your Stake in Standards and New
Kinds of Public Schools," (Brookings Institution Press, March
2000). Harvey can be
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