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WA CHARTERS, Sunday, August 6, 2000.

Dear Friends,

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 D).

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:


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 reached through

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