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Originally published Wednesday, July 11, 2012 at 5:02 PM

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High-performing charter schools can close the opportunity gap

The new charter-school initiative before Washington voters, writes Teachers United executive director Chris Eide, is designed to help with one of our state's most pressing issues: closing the opportunity gap.

Special to The Times

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FOR the fourth time in 16 years, Washington state is considering passing a law that would allow charter schools to serve students. The new initiative, however, is specifically designed to create conditions for high-performing charter schools — schools with a proven track record of student achievement — to help with one of our state's most pressing issues: closing the opportunity gap.

Initiative 1240 will go to the voters in the general election on Nov. 6.

Charter schools are public schools and are legally obligated to be accessible to all students. They operate under higher levels of performance accountability in exchange for more freedom over curriculum, budget and staffing decisions. Washington is one of nine states left that does not allow this type of school to serve students.

An oft-cited study from Stanford University's Center For Research on Education Outcomes in 2009 states that "for students that are low income, charter schools had a larger and more positive effect than for similar students in traditional public schools. English Language Learner students also reported significantly better gains in charter schools." These are high-performing charter schools.

Opponents to charter schools in Washington point to 22 schools the state superintendent of public instruction calls innovative schools as examples of the types of new schools we should promote instead. So the question is: Do these innovative schools do what we would ask of high-performing charter schools?

The three schools most often mentioned as examples of innovation in Washington produce impressive results. Since inception, two of these schools have scored above 80 percent on state tests in all subject areas. They emphasize rigorous academic programs and themes, such as engineering or the arts. They excel in building partnerships in commerce and industry. But a closer look reveals their populations are not those that high-performing charter schools have been successful in educating.

Aviation High School in the Highline School District serves less than one-third the district average for low-income students, 21 percent compared with 67 percent. The other two schools, Tacoma School of the Arts and Vancouver School of Arts and Academics, tell a similar story. The Tacoma school serves 43 percent fewer students who come from poverty than its district average. The Vancouver school serves 32 percent less than its district average.

Despite great results for more privileged students, our innovation schools are struggling with low-income students. Of the 22 schools, only five are serving student bodies with more than 50 percent low-income students. Last year, those five schools average 21 percentage points below their home district on state math tests and 10 points below in reading.

By contrast, KIPP, a national high-performing charter-school network, serves a population of which 85 percent of students are low-income. Ninety-eight percent of KIPP reading classes and 90 percent of KIPP's math classes outperform their surrounding districts by eighth grade.

Charter schools have been opposed in Washington in part because of charter schools' inconsistent results nationwide. However, the current charter-school initiative is written to reflect the lessons learned by other states after nearly 20 years and hundreds of replicable examples of what works. It would only allow schools with a very high likelihood of success to serve our students and would be the gold standard for rigorous state charter-school legislation. Other states that have adopted a similar charter-school law now have high-performing charter schools that are closing the opportunity gap for their students.

True innovation for Washington would seek to provide a quality education to those students who don't already have access to one, rather than expand privilege for many of those who already do. Those students can't wait for the state to fully fund education and hope then that it will be fixed. We must adopt what will work for them now.

Christopher Eide is executive director of Teachers United and a substitute teacher in Seattle Public Schools. Views expressed are his own and not necessarily reflective of all Teachers United teachers' perspectives.

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