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The Controversial Test of What Constitutes a True Charter School

The historically significant Washington State campaign on school reform is continuing to develop in curious ways. There is an old political adage, “If you can’t win an argument on an issue, argue about something else,” and that is just what opponents of the two school reform initiatives are doing. In the past week, with the election fast approaching, proponents of Initiative 177 have been particularly upset at the way opponents have mischaracterized charter schools. By confusing people about what a charter school actually is, opponents apparently hope to appeal to a voter’s traditional tendency to vote against a proposition he or she doesn’t understand very well.

Charter schools are independently managed schools within the existing public school system and accountable directly to parents and state law. They are not private schools. Some 25 states have passed charter school laws in the past few years and 400 such schools have been set up nationwide so far. More are being added monthly. There is popular appeal to the idea that parents and teachers can set up public schools that offer alternatives to the one-size-fits all approach of the school bureaucracy and the teachers union. The motivation is to raise standards of discipline, respect and academic performance.

Obviously, the opponents would rather not dwell on all that. For some weeks they tried instead to suggest that charter schools would hurt poor and minority students. But that argument dissolves as soon as one looks at reform efforts around the country. Charter schools actually enjoy their greatest support in poor and minority communities. Those are the ones, after all, that have the most at stake in the public system. Reform is about strengthening the public system in order to attract parents back to it, benefiting everyone. It is not about giving people a way out of the system, for anyone with money has that already.

Let’s be clear: under the initiative, charter schools must be open to all children, including those requiring special education. They cannot teach religion. They must give students a hearing before making a substantial change in a student’s status. They cannot discriminate on racial grounds. Their records must be open and each child must have an educational plan, a level of attention that goes beyond present public school service.

When informed of these provisions, voters are favorably impressed. So opponents lately have been trying yet another line. They are claiming that they too favor charter schools, but that those proposed under Initiative 177 are not “real” charter schools.

The truth is the very different. The charter schools I-177 will allow are the kind for which √¨strong charter laws’ in other states–for example, Michigan– provide. The “weak charter laws” the opponents might like are found in those states–such as Kansas–where the whole idea has stalled.

With I-177, there is no cap on the number of charter schools that may be created, as in “weak charter” states. The local board would have the authorizing authority to create a charter school, but if it rejected an application, an appeal could be made to the state board. Moreover, the local board’s authority is strictly to determine whether legal provisions are met by the charter school. It could not decide on policy grounds not to have any more charter schools.

Here is the true heart of the disagreement. Local boards are typically unfriendly to any education reform they cannot control. That’s why in some states other chartering agencies are allowed. In Michigan, over 90 percent of the charters are granted by universities and community colleges. Less than 10 percent of charters are granted by local boards, though local boards make up 90 percent of the possible agencies for authorizing charter schools.

The Washington approach–I-177–handles this problem with a typical Northwest compromise, giving the local boards the authorizing role, but limiting that role. What is expected to happen is a lot of de facto negotiation. In the end, what you probably would see is a lot of current schools converted into charter schools.

Meanwhile, however, the initiative provides yet another assurance that the reform would not be enacted against the desires of voters. Under I-177, charter schools are strictly a local option. That means, for example, that if Mercer Island did not want to allow charter schools, it would have that right, after taking a vote, while it could not stand in the way of Seattle if voters in that district chose to encourage charter schools.

Aren’t charter school backers afraid that voters in individual districts will turn down the idea when the time comes? Not at all. The greater fear is on the other side, that once charter schools exist anywhere–with clear accountability to parents for discipline and academic results–schools that do not have to treat parents as customers will soon lose their confidence. Over a few years public schools as a whole will be transformed.

Charter schools, therefore, are a “safe” reform, but a real one. It will benefit the economy and democracy of the future. And it will benefit parents and students right away.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.