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Originally published Saturday, October 13, 2012 at 4:01 PM

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Editorial: The Times recommends Initiative 1240 — add charter schools to the state’s education-reform agenda

Voters should approve Initiative 1240 and add charter schools to the mix of innovation and reform finally taking hold in Washington state.

Seattle Times Editorial

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What Initiative 1240 would do

• The state would allow up to 40 public charter schools in Washington state over five years.

• These schools would be public schools freed from some state regulations so school budgets, schedules, curriculum and staff could be tailored to fit student needs.

• Charters would be free and open to any student.

• Charter operators must be nonprofits. Religious organizations would not be allowed.

• Priority must be given to opening public charter schools that serve at-risk students and those attending low-performing public schools.

• Academic standards and teacher-certification requirements would be the same as traditional public schools.

• Approval and oversight of the charter schools would fall to local school boards or a governor-appointed Washington state charter school commission.

• Strict oversight and accountability would include annual performance reviews and an evaluation at the end of five years before more public charter schools would be allowed.

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Public school students have different needs requiring different classroom techniques. That critical fact is behind the inspiration that launched public charter schools across America 20 years ago and helps explain the continuing success of many of them.

Washington voters should seize the opportunity to bring charter schools to Washington state by approving Initiative 1240, which would create 40 high-performing charter schools.

The current public-schools system is not a failure, but it has demonstrably failed many students. Consider this:

• One in four Washington public-school students fails to graduate from high school on time.

• One-third graduate without the knowledge and skills to succeed in college or the workplace.

• More than half of high-school graduates enter community or technical colleges needing remedial classes in math, English or reading.

So far, solutions have been neither bold nor adequate. The Legislature designated a mere 22 schools — out of nearly 2,300 — as innovation schools, freeing them up to operate similar to charter schools. That’s about one-in-100 Washington schools. And only a few of them serve student bodies with more than 50 percent low-income students, the equivalent of incremental steps in a system needing bigger change.

This is not about doing away with or abandoning traditional public schools. Evidence continues to mount that students need creativity and flexibility in the classroom and the current system does not provide or encourage enough of it.

In 41 states, charters are making a difference for a significant number of public-school students. There is no evidence that those charter schools will lead to the privatization of public education. In many cities, including Denver, New York City and Cleveland, charter schools are partnering with traditional schools to reform entire districts.

We need both charter public schools, where principals are given latitude to pick teachers, shape budget priorities and tailor curriculum to students, and good traditional schools willing to innovate.

I-1240’s schools would be publicly chartered schools run by nonprofit organizations under strict rules. No religious schools would be allowed.

Charters have been accused of cherry-picking the best public-school students, leaving traditional schools with the most challenging students. I-1240 not only gives priority to at-risk students, it codifies this intent by clearly defining at-risk students as those, “performing below grade level, at risk of dropping out of high school or currently enrolled in chronically low-performing schools.” Also included are special-education students, those with higher-than-average disciplinary sanctions or low participation rates in advanced or gifted programs or limited English proficiency, and those who are members of economically disadvantaged families.

The potential of charters to change the urban education landscape is huge. The U.S. Conference of Mayors, representing more than 1,000 city leaders, supports public charter schools.

A Massachusetts study found public charter schools in Boston eliminated the achievement gap between minority and white students. Researchers also looked at New York City and found charter-school students there scored 31 points higher in math and 23 points higher in English than similar students in nearby public schools.

Count Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland among charters’ supporters. Strickland points to her city’s well-respected Lincoln Center, an innovation school modeled after KIPP charter schools.

Students at Lincoln Center attend an extended day, from 7:35 a.m. to 5 p.m., a summer program and classes on some Saturdays. The extra learning time made a difference, erasing the achievement gap between white students and students of color. More than 90 percent of the class of 2012 is on track to graduate, compared with about 60 percent of their peers at Lincoln High, a traditional public school operating on the same campus.

In Seattle, the School Board recently finalized the Creative Schools Approach, developed by the teachers union as a pre-emptive strike against charter schools. The plan is to allow schools to opt out of district and union requirements as long as 80 percent of the building’s teachers sign on. Unions have been slow to embrace the bold reforms needed in public education. Charters are not controlled by unions, allowing for swifter, bolder action.

Wholesale change of the sort needed to alter the academic lives of tens of thousands of students requires more than a single effort. Space must be made for innovative schools, charters and other proven efforts.

A region innovative enough to lead the world markets for airplanes, coffee, software and global health can surely be more aggressive reforming its schools. Otherwise, another generation will stumble through, with far too many students failing out of school.

Twenty years after the first charter school opened in Minnesota, more than 4,000 charters are operating across the country, many more successfully than the traditional public schools.

A 2009 study from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that nearly two-thirds of charters offer an education equivalent to or better than what traditional public schools offered. About 37 percent performed worse than their traditional counterparts on standardized tests, providing ammunition for critics who say it is proof charters as a concept do not work.

But that argument against I-1240 doesn’t hold up. The same Stanford study found that many do work:

“For students that are low income, charter schools had a larger and more positive effect than for similar students in traditional public schools,” the authors wrote. “English Language Learner students also reported significantly better gains in charter schools.”

The University of Washington’s Center for Reinventing Public Education analyzed all major charter studies and found low-performing charters tend to be in states with loose rules. Washington has an opportunity to set rules upfront that build on the most successful charter models.

Criticism that charters siphon funds from traditional schools is a smoke screen. The fact is they are part of the same system. Education funding already follows students wherever they go in the public system, whether to alternative, magnet or charter schools. That’s as it should be.

Funding is critical because the Legislature must reshape budget priorities to comply with a state Supreme Court ruling to better fund public schools.

In McCleary v. State of Washington, the court was not telling legislators to write a $4 billion check and go home. Lawmakers are tasked with offering bold reforms for education and finding the money to pay for it. There is no reason one of those reforms cannot be charter schools. Indeed, a public fed up with the unevenness of education should demand it.

Charter schools are not a panacea for poverty or other societal problems that interfere with learning. But charters have become laboratories for innovation precisely because they work to address those problems, often by providing wraparound social services and connecting schools with community resources.

We cannot continue to put off change because it is uncomfortable and challenges the status quo. Nov. 6 will mark the fourth time voters have been asked about charter schools. The question has been refined over time to incorporate what has been learned from charters.

I-1240 includes language taken from laws governing the best-performing charter schools. The creation of 40 public charter schools is a slow, careful step toward innovating and improving our public system.

Mark yes on your ballot for I-1240.

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