With good system in place, leave charter schools be

The Columbian, Vancouver

Washington’s public charter schools are governed by a well-designed system that should be allowed to establish roots and flourish.

That possibility rests in the hands of the state Supreme Court, which last week heard arguments in yet another legal attack upon the schools. Since being approved in a statewide vote in 2012, charter schools have been targeted by a coalition of opponents led by teachers unions. Those legal battles have distracted from a reasonable evaluation of the schools and the role they can play in improving student outcomes.

Six years ago, 50.7 percent of voters approved the establishment of charter schools in Washington and set in motion a chain of legal battles. Plaintiffs won an argument before the Supreme Court that the schools are unconstitutional because they use public money but are not governed by elected school boards. The Legislature quickly responded by funding charter schools through lottery money rather than the general fund, a move that was upheld last year in King County Superior Court. Rather than give up the fight and focus upon students, opponents have persisted.

Along the way, the benefits of charter schools in Washington have been obfuscated by specious arguments that they are de facto private schools. As Rob McKenna, a former state attorney general, argued in front of the Supreme Court, “It is simply not a requirement of the constitution … that every form of public school have a school board.”

While it will be up to the justices to determine the legality of charter schools, we are compelled to point out the diligence that went into devising the state’s system. As approved by voters, Washington’s schools are held to high standards. Schools must meet strict criteria for fulfilling the needs of students who often are poorly served by traditional schools, and there are provisions for shutting down schools that do not meet that criteria. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers has given high marks to Washington because of that accountability.

Charter schools currently serve about 2,400 students in Washington, and two more schools are scheduled to open in the fall (none have been approved for Clark County). Considering that the state has more than 1 million public school students spread over nearly 300 districts, charter schools have generated a disproportionate amount of angst from opponents. The fight has been counterproductive and expensive, drawing attention away from work that could benefit students.

Charter schools offer a valuable alternative for many students, and Washington’s system specifically emphasizes the needs of low-income students in low-income schools. Rather than being viewed as a threat to traditional schools, charters should be considered a worthy experiment that can cultivate methods for better serving students. Again, if a school cannot demonstrate that it is effective, it can be shut down.

The reality is that one size does not fit all when it comes to education, and many students are left behind in a system marked by rigidity and uniformity. Teachers unions and other opponents should have recognized that long ago rather than engaging in prolonged legal wrangling. We hope the Supreme Court provides a definitive decision that allows Washington’s charter schools to reach their full potential.

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