In wake of ballot initiative, momentum for charter schools in Washington state

by Fawn Spady

School choice has encountered greater travails in few venues besides Washington State. Before they narrowly approved a new charter law this November, voters rejected charter initiatives in 1996 and 2000 and repealed a charter law enacted by the legislature in 2004. Washington State is in fact the only state where charter schools have ever faced voters directly. Now, opponents including the Washington State teachers union and the state superintendent of schools are threatening to sue to try to have the law held unconstitutional.

But you can’t keep a good idea down, as we saw last week at the Washington Charter School Resource Center conference. My husband Jim and I started the center in 2000. We hosted 160 interested people, 80 percent of them educators, at a forum on how to start a charter school successfully. Many hope to open a school next fall.

We are frustrated that the opposition remains so intense when the need for new approaches and frankly, for empowering parents with more educational options, is so obvious. Not even half of our fourth- and eighth-graders were proficient on national reading and math tests in 2011. Although we are fortunate in Washington State to have fewer low-income families than the national average, we rank only 37th in high school completion. Our graduation rate was 73.7 percent in 2011, and it was just 56.5 percent for Native Americans, 65.4 percent for African Americans and 64.5 percent for Hispanics. This is simply unacceptable.

Thankfully, we heard the imperative for change from those attending our forum. A principal told us he was tired of doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome. A parent said she just knows there is a better choice for her special needs children. A retired teacher said public charter schools give her the desire to return to public education. A former school board member declared charters a way to engage parents in schools.

Particularly encouraging for us is the wealth of expertise eager to assist us in moving forward.

Yvonne Chan transformed the Los Angeles school district’s failing Vaughn Elementary into the nation’s first independent conversion charter and served two terms on California’s State Board of Education. She told the group that charters “take the handcuffs off both teachers and parents.” Marta Reyes created the charter school division in the California Department of Education and has subsequently consulted with numerous charter school and education reform organizations. She now lives in Washington State and would make an ideal first appointment to the Washington Charter Schools Commission. Debi Lorence, founder of Oregon’s M.I.T.C.H. Charter School, one of that state’s highest performing public schools, also lent her knowledge to our forum. All total, 10 charter operators spoke, many voicing interest in coming to Washington State either now or in the near future to open schools.

We all recognize that opening a charter school is not for the faint of heart. Our resource center can provide support for those undertaking the effort. It will be an ongoing struggle against powerful, well-funded opponents.

You can visit us and “friend” us on Facebook to follow the developments in Washington State. We will need your advice and guidance as we advance school choice in the 42nd state to approve charter schools.

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BY Special to NextSteps