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School Choice & Charters Opinion

Charter Rhetoric Heating Up in WA State

By Justin Baeder — January 19, 2012 1 min read
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Despite being voted down by citizens three times, charter schools are again up for consideration by the WA state legislature, with many backers.

A Tacoma News-Tribune editorial offers this circuitous rationale:

Charter public schools are hardly the most important reform out there, but they do serve as a barometer of a state's willingness to give every possible option to parents and children. ... These [ending LIFO, stronger evaluation policies] are all more important than charter schools. But a K-12 establishment that won't tolerate a single charter school - not one - is never going to tackle the genuinely hard stuff.

This is the kind of rhetoric that is being used in my home state of Washington right now, as the legislature debates yet another charter bill and related legislation regarding seniority-based layoffs and evaluation. Apparently our willingness to “tolerate” charters is now of great importance.

What I find interesting about this current debate is that it seems to be widely recognized now that charter schools really aren’t that great; in the aggregate, they fail to consistently outperform regular public schools.

So we’re now hearing that a willingness to have charter schools is itself some sort of sign of progress. Never mind that there’s no evidence that charters would improve educational outcomes in the Evergreen State.

The Seattle Times takes a similar approach:

Expect contentious debate. In particular, the teachers union sees charter schools as a threat. Yes, Washington state voters rejected charter-school proposals three times. But we know a lot more about these innovative public schools since the last failed measure in 2004. The current proposal offers a thoughtful entry into charters. Only 50 would be allowed in the state -- with no more than 10 new ones authorized each year. Each would be required to adopt a specific plan to serve educationally disadvantaged children. Nationally, about 20 percent of charter schools have been found to do a better job of educating students than public schools. Part and parcel of bringing charters to this state is to learn what those successful charters are doing and do it here.

Note that the Times also resorts to elaborate rhetorical gymnastics. What exactly does it mean that “20 percent of charter schools have been found to do a better job of educating students than public schools”? Better than average public schools? Because I’m pretty sure that more than 20% of public schools are better than the average public school.

Why is there again so much interest in charters in a state that has (perhaps more than anywhere else in the nation) repeatedly and soundly rejected them, especially now that we have ample evidence that charters aren’t better?

Perhaps it’s the lack of alternatives in the current budgetary climate. The Seattle Times opens its editorial with this line:

A slew of education reforms proposed to the state Legislature signal a chance to get real work done this session.

To most educators in Washington, this is code for “The legislature has been unable to adequately fund public education, so they’re trying to look like they’re doing something to improve schools.” That’s certainly what it sounds like to me.

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