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Yes to charters: What does Washington have to lose with a choice?

Voters have rejected charters here three times. But the rest of the country is finding ways outside the public school monopoly to offer options to students and parents.

Students at registration for Charleston Charter School for Math and Science. South Carolina is one of the states that allow charter schools.

Students at registration for Charleston Charter School for Math and Science. South Carolina is one of the states that allow charter schools. Hdescopeland (Henry De Saussure Copeland)/Flickr

I confess to attitudes about education. Having put two children through the public school system, my wife and I have had to confront the need for alternatives. Most recently, we withdrew our sixth-grader from the local school after it became evident that its low academic and disciplinary standards were not going to change in the foreseeable future. After years of hoping fruitlessly that the school would start living up to its mission, we quit wasting our time and began home-schooling.

It was our only real option. We live in an isolated community, and while one private school operates in our county and enjoys a good reputation, the commute would have added hours to our student's day and plenty of driving to our own schedules. And, most of all, the tuition would have consumed many thousands of dollars yearly.

The full tuition would have been considerably less, however, than what the school district and the state pay to educate a child at the local school we gave up on. It would have been wonderful if, instead of dumping over $16,000 a year on our child's substandard public education (the amount spent in our community, according to state figures), the government could have supplied us with a voucher with which to pursue the private option. The latter arrangement — school choice — has become almost a sine qua non of hard-right ideology, to which I don't generally subscribe, but the logic of the idea, properly implemented, resists challenge, in my mind.

While Washington state has yet to explore them, the alternatives in educating one's child are numerous. In some New England towns that don't have their own high schools, the town (the local unit of government in New England) pays for its young people to attend high schools elsewhere. These are sometimes private academies, most of which seem to enjoy excellent reputations and turn in higher test scores than do public high schools in adjoining communities.

By contrast, an educational system in which the only school is a traditional public school constitutes a monopoly. Your local school may be obsessed with making education fun, winning athletic contests, eating up class time with socializing, enveloping its students in a cocoon of empty praise and extrinsic rewards, deferring the inculcation of any meaningful writing skills until the state-mandated senior project — the list goes on and on — and you, the parent, are stuck. More to the point, your child is, too.

Against that monopolistic background, enter Washington's charter school campaign, which is asking us to take one step in the direction of school choice by approving a ballot initiative, I-1240, to allow the establishment of 40 charter schools in our state. Charter schools are enjoying some national political momentum, too: both presidential candidates have indicated their support for them. Both national party platforms endorse them, although the Democratic platform's support is qualified. But in Washington, voters have thus far rejected the idea in ballot questions three times.

Those ballot questions, like the present one, involved “an unelected board spending state money with no accountability to the voters,” opines Catherine Ahl, education chair at the League of Women Voters of Washington, which opposes I-1240. “People weren't ready to have [such boards] oversee the spending of their taxes.”

With respect to academic results, she adds, “the research that we've read doesn't show that charter schools are any better than public schools, and in fact many of them are much worse.”

Shannon Campion of the Washington Coalition for Public Charter Schools answers that I-1240 has stronger accountability provisions than its predecessors. She cites the 32 criteria that applicant charter schools must address and broad language allowing for the revocation of charters. Asked about states with charter schools that fall short of the mark academically, she says that “states with the strongest state laws have schools that exceed the standard of the public schools in that state,” and that Washington, under I-1240, will follow suit.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Oct 26, 6:13 a.m. Inappropriate

Mr. Hall doesn't know what he's talking about. He thinks that the local school district spends $16,000 a year to educate his child. This may be true if his child has a disability, but otherwise he is not only wrong, but wrong-headed.

The average cost of educating a public school student is not synonymous with the typical cost. The typical costs are much lower. The average is pulled up by the costs associated with students living in poverty, English Language Learners, and, most of all, students with disabilities. Either Mr. Hall doesn't know this or he is intentionally spreading misinformation. In either case he is unqualified to write on the topic, either due to a lack of expertise or a lack of integrity.

He is also a self-admitted advocate of school vouchers, another half-baked idea. Schools have finite capacity, so the popular schools will fill, just as they do now. No more students will be able to enroll in them than can now, there will be no more choice than there is now, and the rest of the students will have to find seats elsewhere. The promise of competition is a false promise. Since there is little or no excess capacity, the schools do not compete for students, the students compete for schools. That's what we saw here in Seattle when we had school choice and that's what we see in the charter school propaganda like Waiting for Superman. Competition works in the private sector where successful businesses that win the competition make more money by increasing output or raising their prices. Neither of those is an option for public schools and there is no profit motive to encourage them to do it anyway.

Choice, another promise of charter schools is also a myth. Families already have a lot of choices. They can enroll their child at their neighborhood school, at another neighborhood school in their district, at an alternative school in their district, at a neighborhood school in another district, at an alternative school in another district, at an online school, at a private school, or, as Mr. Hall did, they can home-school. Families already have a lot of choices. They are not seeking MORE choices, they are seeking BETTER choices. There is no reason to believe that a charter school will be a better choice. Only 17% of them get better outcomes than public schools. There is, however, good reason to believe that a charter school will be a worse choice. More than twice as many charter schools, 37%, get outcomes worse than the public schools.

If Mr. Hall really wants more school choice, he should relocate his family to an area with denser population. Lack of choice is a natural consequence of living in an isolated area. Not just with schools but for everything - less choice in barbers, shoe stores, dry cleaners, and supermarkets. It is unlikely that a charter school will begin operation in such a place for the same reason that there are not more public schools in his area. There aren't enough students to justify it. Mr. Hall is like someone who moves next-door to an airport and then complains about the noise.

Ms Campion and other proponents of I-1240 frequently say that the initiative is modeled on the best state laws in the country, but they never say which state's laws. I have been asking for months and I still don't know. I don't think she knows. I think it's just a marketing line and a myth like competition and choice. There is no state with a parent trigger provision like the one in I-1240. There is no state with a teacher trigger provision like the one in I-1240. In an elementary school with 18 teachers, it would only take ten of them to sign a petition and take over the school.

Mr. Hall has bought all of the other charter school myths without engaging any kind of critical reasoning skills. He doesn't realize that they would draw funds away from public schools. Of course they would. He seems to think that it is easy to close a charter school; he couldn't be more wrong. They are as hard to close as a public school.

In the end, everything that Mr. Hall believes is simply wrong. As Mr. Hall readily admits, he just wants the taxpayers to underwrite the costs of a private school education for his child when he, himself, is unwilling to pay for it.

coolpapa

Posted Fri, Oct 26, 6:18 a.m. Inappropriate

Here's a funny thing: lots of fiscal hawks were screaming at Seattle Public Schools to close schools that were only two-thirds full because maintaining these schools was a waste of money. So, unwisely, Seattle closed schools - schools that they now are re-opening at great expense.

These same people now claim that we can add new schools to an area without any more students thereby creating schools that are two-thirds full and it won't cost anything.

This dishonest inconsistency needs some inspection and exposure.

coolpapa

Posted Fri, Oct 26, 8:17 a.m. Inappropriate

"By contrast, an educational system in which the only school is a traditional public school constitutes a monopoly. Your local school may be obsessed with making education fun, winning athletic contests, eating up class time with socializing, enveloping its students in a cocoon of empty praise and extrinsic rewards, deferring the inculcation of any meaningful writing skills until the state-mandated senior project — the list goes on and on — and you, the parent, are stuck."

If this wasn't so funny, it would be sad. This is not the average public school by any means. I am sorry the author had what he feels is a bad experience but to say this is the average school is wrong.

I am proud of the education that my two sons received in Seattle Public Schools and I know a lot of people who feel the same way. Is everything perfect everywhere? No but the evidence is in that charters are worse.

I-1240 will be new spending with no new revenue. $3M of it will go to yet another state commission and those are dollars that don't go to the classroom.

We don't fully-fund our EXISTING schools - not even to the national average (and don't ask where the author gets his $16k per student figure because that simply isn't so). If you have scarce education dollars you had better spend them on what WORKS. A 17% chance of success are not odds you'd get in Vegas.

As for 1240 itself, it's poorly-written and vague. And, it contains two poison pills that should give everyone pause.

1) it allows a charter group, as part of its application, to submit a petition signed by a majority of either parents or teachers at ANY existing school, failing or not. The charter would then take over the school, building and all.

Folks, schools don't belong to parents or teachers; they belong to the taxpaying public. We would have NO say over this action nor would we have anyone elected to appeal to.

Imagine, 18 teachers in an elementary and 10 sign the petition. Ten people get to decide the fate of an entire school community? That's not good public policy.

2) 1240 gives charters the right of first refusal to any school building for sale or lease at or BELOW market value. Consider that every single district in our state is cash-strapped. If they need the money, they would be forced to sell at whatever price the charter group offered.

We don't sell our public buildings for less than they are worth. This is bad public policy.

I suspect that either one of those (or both) would be open to a lawsuit. In fact, Hugh Spitzer, a UW professor of constitutional law, recently wrote in The Stranger Slog that he believes there are not just one but two constitutional problems with 1240.

You might ask: if not charters, what are we doing?

- first, for the 9th straight year, Washington State is at the top of SAT scores. That's not a "backwater" of education.
- the Washington State Legislature has passed not one but two Innovation Schools laws
- the Legislature also passed a law supporting creation of more STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs in our schools
- Tacoma Public Schools created Lincoln Center, a high school within a high school for at-risk students. They have CLOSED the achievement gap.
- Seattle Schools just approved the Creative Approach plan that allows staff AND parents at a school to create a program for their students that could include flexibility in curriculum, longer school days or even waivers in parts of the teachers contract. Very charter-like and yet, we don't need charter law to do this.

Say no to charters for the 4th time.

No On 1240, www.no1240.org

westello

Posted Fri, Oct 26, 8:18 a.m. Inappropriate

C.B. Hall asks "What does Washington have to lose with a choice?" The answer is we lose desperately needed tax-payers' dollars going to private corporations out for a profit that never will take their fare share of special needs, or new English Language Learners, or 'behavior-challenged' youngsters. Give classroom teachers a break!
OSPI says the state needs $4.4 billion dollars for the state to meet its constitutional oligation to bring schools up to standards. Just how do charter schools help? Take a teacher to lunch and just ask them about their typical day. And all the evenings they spend preparing the best lessons possible given limited resources. Or the needs of the families depending on public schools to help their students succeed. We need MORE support for public education, not less.

Posted Fri, Oct 26, 9:51 a.m. Inappropriate

What do we have to lose? Oh, how about transparency, accountability, our moral compass etc

http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/10/25/14698079-500000-payment-to-failed-charter-school-principal-sparks-outrage?lite

Barney

Posted Sat, Oct 27, noon Inappropriate

My folks retired to a poor farming community and my brother was educated in the local school. It was not a great school but he was successful because family is as important as teachers. Why was the school less successful? Many, many community members thought Friday night dances and sports was more important than algebra, civics and homework. It was as simple as that.

Mr. Hall should have been an outspoken advocate for excellent schools starting with his own.

Posted Sat, Oct 27, 4:05 p.m. Inappropriate

I wonder if Mr. Hall is the homeschool teacher for his kids, or whether he assigned his wife that duty because his work is more important. If she's the one, she should have written the article.

sarah90

Posted Tue, Oct 30, 3:26 p.m. Inappropriate

Apparently there are many in the educational system who do not believe in competition.

I voted for Charter Schools, and believe it is going to pass. Change and competition are healthy.

Posted Tue, Oct 30, 9:21 p.m. Inappropriate

I am really disappointed to see Crosscut endorsing a concept that voters have rejected three times already.

Charters will divert needed funds from public schools at a time when we could actually be starting to fully fund the system as it stands. Instead, this initiative proposes a parallel system with less transparency and a profit motive. All you need to do is look at the list of wealthy donors who are funding this effort, and as yourself, what's in it for them? A business opportunity. The "trigger" mechanism allows an existing school to be flipped to Charter with 50% plus one vote of parents and staff -- the lowest standard for takeover in the nation. That's a neat trick! Charter Inc gets to start a business in a rent-free facility, with their overhead paid for out of the existing school budget and guaranteed customers... I mean students.
Once taken, can these public assets ever be reclaimed? Who knows.

Needless to say I am voting NO.

JRick22

Posted Tue, Oct 30, 10:16 p.m. Inappropriate

I'm a little disappointed that Crosscut couldn't find better advocates for either side of the Charter school initiative. Neither the pro nor the con columns were at all convincing or even, for the most part, on topic.

I think I-1240 is a dreadfully bad law, but I could have made a better argument on behalf of it than Mr. Hall.

coolpapa

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