Beyond the Debate: Public Charter Schools Part of Overall Solution for Public Education

…[I-1240] supporters say Washington is ready now to join the 41 other states that offer families the charter choice. Voters will have a say, again, when they rule on Initiative 1240 on the Nov. 6 ballot.

“Every family ought to have access to at least one good school,” says education entrepreneur and I-1240 backer Tom Vander Ark, who was superintendent of Federal Way Public Schools for five years in the 1990s. …

Vander Ark says charters are one tool that can be used to reverse generations of poverty and schools that haven’t met the needs of poor children. He directed national education initiatives for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation before launching his own enterprises. …

FUNDING

Charters are publicly funded, tuition-free schools that permit significant decisions to be made at a school level, rather than by a school district or state officials. …

Shannon Campion, a Seattle mom and director of initiative-backer Washington Stand for Children, says the idea that charters drain money from public education is wrong.

“These are public schools,” she says. “They are serving public school students within the public system.

“What makes charter schools different is that they are free from certain state regulations. They can set curriculum and budgets at the school level. They can hire and fire staff to make sure their team is aligned with the mission of their school.”

Tailoring a school to its kids is one reason charters have been successful in serving struggling students in other states, she says. …

Rachel Johnson, a teacher at Glacier View Junior High School in Puyallup, knows she’s in the minority among public school teachers supporting I-1240.

Johnson previously taught in Puyallup’s alternative high school, where many students struggle. She believes charters offer one way to “help kids on the front end,” before they fail.

She says her views on charters were influenced by a visit to a charter high school in Corbett, Ore. – a school recognized for excellence by U.S. News & World Report.

Corbett teachers, Johnson said, were “energized by their work. They have the flexibility to be responsive to student needs.”

AUTHORITY

… Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, says it’s common in other states to have alternatives to local school boards serve as charter authorizers.

In some states, the alternative power rests with a state university. In others, it’s given to big-city mayors.

“We found that there is no one, right way,” Lake said. “Local school boards have a role, if they want to participate.”

In states where charters have operated for years, she says, school districts are starting to see charters as part of a “portfolio” of school options, along with traditional and magnet schools. She said charter authorizers can ensure that schools have “strict accountability requirements that most public schools don’t have.”

Chief among them: closure for nonperformance. …

RESEARCH

Both supporters and opponents of charters cite academic studies that support their views.

One of the most extensive, and most referenced, came from Stanford University in 2009. It compared charter students in 15 states and the District of Columbia with demographic “twins” in traditional public schools. Opponents quote the study’s finding that only 17 percent of the charter kids improved their test scores above what was seen in traditional schools. Some 37 percent of charter kids were below. About 46 percent of charter kids had results that were statistically the same.

A 2010 study of 32 charter schools published by the U.S. Department of Education also showed mixed results on test scores. But the study did say that charters serving low-income and struggling students had statistically positive effects on math scores, while those serving more affluent high achievers had negative effects. The study also said charter parents and students were more satisfied with their schools.

Todd Ziebarth, a vice president with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, has compared I-1240 with a model law drafted by his group, and to best practices around the country. He believes I-1240 could move Washington state to the head of the class in the world of charters.

He says how people feel about charters depends on whether they believe public education is in crisis.

“It’s not the option for everybody,” he says. “But it can be part of the solution.”

That’s also the belief of Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland, who says anything that can help education is good for the city.

“There is no need to ration excellence,” Strickland says. “It doesn’t have to be either-or. Is it the answer to all our problems? Probably not. But why limit ourselves?”

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