Charter schools aren’t some magic solution. But they can be a valued component of 21st century public schooling.
GOV. Jay Inslee grudgingly allowed a charter-school bill to become law without his signature. Will this finally mean the end of legal limbo for families, students and teachers in the state’s eight existing charter schools, and those yet to be created? Or are we in for more years of bruising legal and legislative battles to preserve a small number of high-quality public school options? It is time for us to carve another path.
It has been a very long and fraught road to the establishment of charter schools in Washington state. Since the late 1990s, we have had multiple legislative proposals, referendums, a few initiatives, a controversial state Supreme Court ruling and, just this past week, a rare move by our governor to allow a bill to become law without his signature.
Our state’s eight charter schools are restored (for now) to public-school status. A total of up to 40 new charter schools statewide will eventually be allowed to open under supervision by a state commission and local school boards. The new bill has been amended to address the high court’s concerns.
Yet opponents already are vowing to launch a new legal challenge and erect other roadblocks to stymie Washington’s public charter schools. They argue that charter schools distract from the work of securing full state funding for all public schools. This is a false either-or proposition: Either we as a state support charter schools or we fight for full funding of public education. We can — and should — do both.
The question in Washington is: what now? Can we recognize that creating a small number of schools designed to serve our neediest students need not detract from our fight to improve all public schools? Can we find ways to build collaborative relationships between district and charter schools to share best practices? Can charter and district parents join forces to push the Legislature to fully fund public schools? Can we consider what’s best for all of Washington’s students, regardless of what their school is called?
I have been studying charter schooling in America since the late 1990s. I have seen terrible charter schools. I have also seen excellent charter schools that set a new standard for innovation and quality. I have seen school districts and even teachers-union leaders move from battling charter schools to partnering with them, and even running them. School districts and charter schools are working together in Denver, Indianapolis, Oakland, Calif., Houston, Chicago, Boston and at least 20 other cities, benefiting students and teachers alike.
But moving beyond vitriol and petty political squabbles requires leadership from community leaders, charter-school leaders, and district and elected officials — all of whom must set a tone for others to follow.
It is time to stop wasting time, energy and money mounting fights to oppose charter schools that serve some of our state’s most at-risk students. Those resources could be marshaled instead to tackle structural inequities — such as a wide achievement gap between minority and nonminority students, inadequate school funding and uneven teacher quality — in all our public schools.
It is time for charter leaders to work with local schools to build relationships between teachers and parents.
It is time for visionary district leaders to imagine ways that nimble charter schools might help them reach their goals of helping all students achieve their potential.
It is time to recognize that public education embodies a set of goals and ideals — equity, transparency, accountability — not a particular set of institutions grounded in norms developed hundreds of years ago for a largely agrarian society.
Charter schools aren’t some magic solution. But they are proving themselves a valued component of 21st-century public schooling by demonstrating what’s possible when schools are freed from certain rules and regulations in exchange for being held accountable for student outcomes. Far from a distraction, charter schools are here to stay. Far from damaging public education, when ably implemented, charter schools enrich and strengthen the fabric of public education.
It is time to move on and focus on students, not battle lines.