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

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

The detractors fail to convince me on these and other points. Charter schools will take money away from public schools, leaving them bereft, we're told — but charter schools are in fact publicly funded institutions that simply don't have to follow certain rules that traditional public schools do. True, competent research indicates that some charter schools stink – but in comparison to what traditional public school? If the one in your neighborhood is scraping the bottom, a charter school will likely offer meaningful improvement, and a goad for the traditional school to get its act in order. And what happens to an under-performing charter school in any case? A school run by dolts will not attract students very long. It will simply — pardon the phrase — go out of business, with or without the I-1240 revocation language cited by Campion. Given the protection of unions, seniority practices, and chummy school boards, it's hard to see that ever happening to a traditional public school, however bad.

The overarching argument for charters is choice: new solutions both private and societal for an educational system that continues to attract skeptical notice abroad, even. One such critic is Pasi Sahlberg, who works in Finland's Ministry of Education. In his Finnish Lessons (Teachers College Press, 2011), he decries what he sees in U.S. schools: overreaching federal regulation, an unending crescendo of tests, and governance based on a suspicion of teachers. U.S. teachers, he says, are less and less free to teach. I agree. In the United States, every indication I've seen points to a future in which teachers at traditional public schools increasingly seem but marionettes dangling from inaccessible bureaucratic hands.

In contrast to U.S. schools, the very successful system in Finland (where I lived for several years) is heavily weighted against charter and private schools; school choice has long been discouraged. But the system places more trust in its educators. That contributes to the country's enviable academic results. But even in this Nordic educational paradise, uncertainties are looming. A recent article in the country's leading newsweekly, Suomen Kuvalehti (Finland's Illustrated Magazine), notes that “stealthily, a system which affords the opportunity for school choice has emerged. … When a family with children is looking for a home, one factor influencing the choice may be the school.”

In other words, even a country with remarkably successful traditional public schools is now discovering the virtues of choice, and differentiations among individuals and communities are increasingly reflecting themselves in the nation's educational system. Monopolistic, ultimately, is monolithic; the desire for choice is natural. It inhabits both families with the money to send their children to any school anywhere, and families for whom a private school around the corner would be a vast improvement — if only they could pay for it.

And while Sahlberg sees the autonomy of Finland's teachers as pointing out the virtues of the Finnish state's public schools, his argument reverses direction in the context of U.S. public education, where the Next Big Things, from No Child Left Behind to Race to the Top, have served to extend the dubious reach of external regulation into every traditional public school classroom. In the U.S., the call for autonomy arises most forcefully outside the government sector. The need for instructional autonomy, that is, forms one of the strongest arguments for charter schools, or for private schools financed by vouchers.

So what are we waiting for? The charter school initiative points us in the proper direction, and comports with a national character that resists the heavy hand of centralized government. And, at least in my layman's logic, the next step after publicly financed charter schools will and should be an educational voucher system. The idea that the state's taxpayers should spend $16,000 a year to give my child a lousy education revolts me. We need something better.

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