COLUMNIST PRAISES CHARTER SCHOOLS
WA CHARTERS, Friday, December 6, 2002.
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: JimSpady@WAcharterschools.org
Jim & Fawn's home phone: 206/275-2089
Attack of 'The Blob'
Why are teachers unions and school boards trying to kill charter
NEWSWEEK WEB EXCLUSIVE http://www.msnbc.com/news
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.
A MATTER OF CHOICE
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.
BEWARE THE BLOB
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
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.
PAYING LIP SERVICE
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.
TAKING THE NEXT STEP
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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