Public charter schools, like religion and politics, should not be discussed in polite company (or at a union hall, a PTA meeting or happy hour for wonky foundation staffers.) Advocates figure to bleed money from a tapped-out system and change the architecture of public education, opponents claim. Opponents are labor diehards unwilling to yield on an innovative, non-bureaucratic approach to K-12 education, supporters say.
The solution — likely to alienate all of the above — lies somewhere in between.
Initiative 1240, which will permit up to 40 public charter schools over a five-year period, is a relatively modest proposal that merits voter support. Forty-one states already allow charters, with Washington in a not-so-illustrious holdout class that includes West Virginia, Alabama, and Kentucky. Unlike previous charter initiatives, I-1240 ensures stringent oversight and accountability. Annual performance reviews will gauge student outcomes, and a comprehensive evaluation after five years will determine next steps.
I-1240 is predicated on the successful example of New York, which puts a premium on oversight and has cultivated programs that bolster outcomes for at-risk and low-income students. The tough-scrutiny method minimizes the number of failing schools, with a clear link between success and oversight, unlike states that have adopted more laissez-faire policies. I-1240 supporters reflect a mosaic, Bill Gates and school reformers advocating in common cause with innovators such as liberal Rep. Eric Pettigrew who represents the most ethnically diverse legislative district in the state.
Charters are public schools managed by qualified non-profits and overseen by the local school board or a state charter-school commission. There is no tuition and, like all public schools, they receive money indexed to enrollment. Contrary to conventional belief, charter-school teachers are subject to the same certification requirements as teachers in other public schools.
Innovation is the centerpiece of the charter model. Charter schools can fiddle with class size and fire poor-performing (read: bad) teachers. The calendar doesn’t need to jibe with a school district’s, permitting longer hours and Saturday classes. It’s a what-works philosophy that birddogs outcomes and student performance.
We know charter schools are not a panacea. With 1 million children in Washington’s K-12 system, the charter approach is impossible to scale. Like many meaningful reforms, the initiative becomes a “yes, and.” Yes to charters, but also yes to an accountable principal corps with more authority. Yes to charters, and yes to nixing tenure for principals and improving the teacher corps through evaluations currently under way. Yes to charters, and yes to ending the inanity of “last hired, first fired.” As MBAs are wont to say, “Who is the customer?” It’s the kids.
The Herald Editorial Board recommends a yes vote on I-1240.