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WA CHARTERS, Friday, December 6, 2002.

Dear Friends,

Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter published an internet column last week praising charter schools and taking charter school critics to task for failing to put children first. A copy is below, for your convenience. Please share it with your friends and family members who may not be as familiar with charter schools as you are.

There will be at least one charter school bill filed when the Washington Legislature convenes for a 90-day session on January 13. Senator Steve Johnson, the new chair of the Senate Education Committee has said that he will file a bill that is virtually identical to Initiative 729 on the first day of the session. Although any bill that gets through the legislative process will undoubtedly include some amendments from its original language, Senator Johnson wants to start with the language that came very close to a statewide majority in the November 2000 election.

Also, as most of you know, I-729 was based on a 1998 bipartisan legislative compromise among Governor Locke and key legislative leaders.

If you would like to read the specific text of I-729, I will send it out in a future WA CHARTER update. Unfortunately, it is no longer available on the Secretary of State's web page.

House Education Committee Chair Dave Quall has not yet decided whether to run his own charter school bill in 2003. However, he has told me that he continues to support charter schools and that he will "definitely" give a timely hearing in his committee to any charter school bill passed by the state Senate.

I hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving. We certainly did!
Best Wishes for a joyous Holiday Season!

Jim & Fawn Spady, co-directors,
Education Excellence Coalition
4426 - 2nd Avenue NE
Seattle, WA 98105-6191
Jim's office phone: 206/634-0589
Jim's cell phone: 206/949-8484
Jim's e-mail address:
Jim & Fawn's home phone: 206/275-2089

Attack of 'The Blob'
Why are teachers unions and school boards trying to kill charter schools?


Nov. 27 - There's no silver bullet. That's what everyone in education says, and it's true. But certain types of schools are what might be called silver arrows in the quiver of reform. The charter school movement, which began ten years ago this fall with just one school in St. Paul, Minnesota, is quietly changing public education, especially in inner cities. With 2,400 such schools in 40 states, charters represent a workable and often inspiring form of public school choice. So of course mindless boards of education and reactionary teachers unions are trying to smear them.

THIS MONTH, for instance, the Illinois Board of Education released results showing that the state's 23 charter schools had performed no better than the state average on tests. But many of those charter schools are for troubled kids who fail in regular public school settings, so the comparisons are meaningless. That didn't stop the teachers unions in that state from telling the press that this was some kind of black eye for charter schools.

Charters don't always hit their target. More than 150 of them have been shut down, the victims of poor fiscal management or even criminality. Maybe you heard about the Los Angeles principal who took $90,000 in taxpayer money meant for kids and used it to buy a sports car.

Forget the horror stories. Despite this year's Supreme Court decision legalizing them, vouchers are too toxic politically to have a real impact beyond talk TV. Charter schools, by contrast, go down much easier. They offer choice and healthy competition in a public setting.


The whole idea of "charter schools" is still confusing for most people (sort of like "fast-track authority" or "tort reform"), in part because the rules governing these independent public schools vary so much state by state. Basically, we're talking about a genuine grassroots movement for small, non-religious, taxpayer-funded alternative schools. They're sponsored by idealistic educators, parents, non-profits, or businesses that win the freedom to try something different and avoid silly union work rules-all in exchange for accountability.

Instead of creaming the best students from the top, admission in most states is by lottery. More than half are in poor areas, where waiting lists are especially long.

The critics make sure you hear about the failures, but the successes receive less attention. Boston boasts the "Academy of the Pacific Rim" that gets some of the highest test scores in town using Asian instruction techniques with black kids; Mesa, Arizona, opened an Arts Academy in a Boys and Girls Club that has local gangs on the run and academic results surging. Whenever I visit Newark, New Jersey's North Star Academy I'm amazed by how much learning is going on. The level of enthusiasm and commitment by teachers and students is phenomenal.


Charters represent a good compromise between status-quo mediocrity and vouchers. But fearful of losing control, "The Blob"-the education establishment-is trying to strangle the movement. Some states are refusing to expand the number of charters they grant in certain areas. (Chicago, for instance, is allowed only ten).

School boards have conned pliant legislatures in 18 states into stipulating that they (the boards) alone can sponsor charters, thereby defeating the purpose. "It's like letting McDonald's decide where Burger King can open," says Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota.

Now the American Federation of Teachers, whose late president, Albert Shanker, once championed charter schools, has launched a vicious frontal assault against them. I'm not sure why anyone would believe a report on charters by a teachers union, but this one deserves some kind of chutzpah award. The report complains that not enough charter schools have been closed for poor academic performance. (More than 150 have been shut, mostly for financial mismanagement). Funny, the AFT doesn't say that about the thousands of lousy conventional schools where their members teach. And as the Center for Education Reform notes, the report neglects to mention that charters usually have to raise their own money for their buildings (covered by the public in conventional schools), which contributes to their financial shakiness.


Instead of judging by results, some states (under pressure from "The Blob") have started heavily regulating charter schools, trying to make them more like the ordinary schools they are meant to challenge. Republicans nationally are generally more open to the movement than Democrats, who remain in bed with teachers unions. But at the state level, GOP lawmakers are also thoroughly compromised by the vested interests of the "educrats."

The Blob's new game, at work now in Illinois, is to pay lip service to charter schools by allowing them for special ed or disruptive students. Then the school boards get to boast that the test scores of their own conventional schools have gone up (because they don't have to average in the weakest kids who've been put in charters), but the charter school scores have not. When some of these charter schools close, the establishment can say, "See! They don't work!" Of course the fact that six percent of charter schools have been shut down, cited by critics as a sign of failure, is actually an indication that the idea is working. Unlike most conventional schools, charters actually have to perform to survive.


The critics aren't completely crazy. Like all social movements, this one has had growing pains. Arizona added charters too quickly and got several shoddy ones; Texas and California didn't screen the founders well enough and have ended up with some crooks. Most states need better auditing of the financial performance of charters, a process that could weed out the poorly conceived ones more quickly. The next phase is to figure out why some charters work and others don't, and improve the batting average. (The Gates Foundation and other non-profits are investing in that process). Then charter schools can make the leap from intriguing reform to major American social movement.

A decade ago, just 90 students at St. Paul's "City Academy" comprised the first charter school in history. Now, there are 650,000 students in charters. But that's out of 46 million school-age children in America. Fortunately, the groundswell will likely continue in the next decade. Charter schools are modern-day barn raisings. They tap something deeply democratic in the culture: local citizens, fighting the power structure, taking matters (legally) into their own hands, committed to market choice but in a public sphere, still dreaming the ancient dream of a better life for their children.

© 2002 Newsweek, Inc.


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