Can charter schools be made palatable in Seattle?

A surprise twist in the story, coming from Los Angeles, might point the way to a political breakthrough.
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High school students solving math problems together

A surprise twist in the story, coming from Los Angeles, might point the way to a political breakthrough.

There was a new twist Tuesday (Feb. 23) in the charter schools story, when Los Angeles, a leader in the movement, dealt most new charters to teachers employed by its public school system. Of 38 new charter schools ("public school choice sites" is the euphemism) created in LA, only six went to outside groups. The new schools affect 38,000 of LA's 700,000 public school students.

Los Angeles is one of the most troubled school districts in the nation, so it's not surprising that it has been able to adopt a lot of charter schools, 161 so far. The new twist, which was deplored by charter school advocates trying to break free from public schools, suggests how the rear-guard resistance to the charter movement might be fought: embrace the idea and then internalize them into the existing public school regime.

Seattle and Washington state are bastions of resistance to charter schools and voucher programs, beating back all efforts for even a token or pilot program. Obama's new "Race to the Top" competition for billions of federal money might crack the fortress a bit. And it could be that Mayor Mike McGinn's new ask-everybody program about schools and youth programs will also pry open the door to at least think about charters locally. (What would also help would be if the Gates Foundation, a fan of the idea, were to help fund a robust, new-thinking experiment.)

If so, compromises like the Los Angeles model might be worth considering. It encourages idealistic teachers to put together ideas and compete for getting a charter school award; and it keeps the money in the system. Not a bad idea, so long as the new schools have a lot of freedom to experiment and break out of regulations.

Another encouraging notion, floated by Matt Miller (of "Left, Right, and Center" radio show fame), was what he called "super vouchers." Normally, a voucher gives a student and her family the equivalent of what the state would spend on this student anyway; it is taken to a private school and cashed there. The super voucher idea, reserved for needy students, would by three or four times the normal amount. Both private schools (including charters) and public ones would compete for those students, earning bonus tuition if they succeed.

So why not "super charters"?


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