Legislature Must Master A-B-C’s of School Reform

Passions over school reform are running high in this state and could wind up splitting the ever wobbly majority of people who support education. Properly channeled, however, the enthusiasm generated by proponents of two initiatives–I-173, the school voucher proposition, and I-177, the public charter schools proposition–could inaugurate a new age of educational progress. The opportunity is in the hands of the present State Legislature.
The two education reform initiatives reflect a national movement to make schools more accountable to parents. Many communities are happy with their existing schools, but others–especially in urban areas–want at least a chance for change. One solution, embodied in I-173, is to give each child’s parents a voucher equal to all or part of what the state would spend on that child in a public school and let the parents decide whether to send the child to a public school or a private (non-religious) school that meets state requirements. Another approach, I-177, would allow parents and teachers to set up state-chartered schools which students could attend as an alternative to other public schools. The object here is to provide more autonomy for schools and options for parents, but strictly within the public system.

Each approach has advantages and each is bound to draw great public support–and opposition–when it appears on the fall ballot. Unfortunately, a statewide survey by the respected Ellway Poll shows that public opinion not only is divided over these proposals, but confused. A majority of voters like the idea of more “choice” and “competition” in the schools. Yet, as pollster Stuart Ellway notes, “an overwhelming majority (also) would rather focus the resources on the public schools than look to options outside the public schools.” The trouble is, charter schools, at least, are public schools.

Confusion over the two school reform alternatives lands on top of another little understood reform effort already underway. Since 1993, a legislatively mandated Commission on Student Learning has been drawing up standards for assessing curricula and student academic progress. Assuming that commission members can contain the education bureaucracy’s partiality for jargon and cant, this is a highly desirable exercise. On the other hand, it is hard to see how better standards and assessment by themselves can do the whole job of education reform. In any case, these new standards are not expected to be in place until 2000.

The business community has been a major proponent of improved standards and assessments and, almost until this week, has tended to see such structural reforms such as I-173 and I-177 as untimely distractions. Nonetheless, the Washington Roundtable, an influential group of business executives, has suggested that the Legislature “Pursue comprehensive charter schools legislation and support other innovations which (are) consistent with the goals of education reform, require accountability for improving student academic performance as required in HB1209 (the standards and assessment law) and introduce greater parental choice……”

Initiative 177 does not mention the academic standards and assessment issue, but the initiative drafters and their legislative allies have made it plain that they have no objection to requiring charter schools to abide by such standards.

Rep. Brian Thomas (R-Issaquah) has authored a constructive compromise bill (HB 2910) that incorporates this concept. Jim and Fawn Spady, the Seattle parents who lead the charter school campaign, say they gladly will settle for this bill if it is enacted and cease campaigning for their initiative.

Meanwhile, something that also purports to be a “charter school” bill (SB 6765) is moving through the Senate. In fact, it is such a weak bill that almost any local school board opposition to innovation could strangle a charter school in its crib. Moreover, initially, only three charter schools would be allowed in the whole Puget Sound Education Service District that includes 300,000 students in Pierce and King Counties. It is charter school reform for people who oppose charter school reform.

So the state has a choice. The Legislature can deliberate, and then adopt a genuine reform bill that the public will likely approve. Or it can abdicate its responsibilities and leave the legislating on this important issue soley to the voters.

Before the latter happens, all sides need to think through the consequences. If either vouchers or charter schools is approved by the voters, the Legislature and the education establishment that neglected them will see their prestige sink through the floor. If both vouchers and charter schools are defeated, major structural change in education might be stalled for 10 years. Another generation will have been sacrificed.

Even the powerful Washington Education Association might be well advised to back a negotiated compromise, as did its counterpart in New Jersey. If not, it stands to lose in the long run–regardless of whether it wins at the polls next fall. By pouring precious dues-dollars into prevention of any parent-empowering reform, the WEA will openly antagonize many voters who in the past have supported school levies and higher teachers salaries.

Twenty states now have public charter school programs. Experiments with vouchers, meanwhile, are disproving the canard that poor and minority students will lose under structural reforms; in fact, poor urban neighborhoods are the most eager for change.

Public support does not diminish with new information and debate about school reform. It increases. You might say that’s testimony to the power of education.

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.