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Friday, August 24, 2012 - Page updated at 03:30 p.m.
Lynne K. Varner
Charters part of a broader plan to reshape and reform public schools
By Lynne K. Varner
Times editorial columnist
"Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."
-- Frederick Douglass, 1857
The famed abolitionist was right: Dismantling power structures isn't easy work. When it comes to reshaping public education, it's heavy lifting.
Initiative 1240, Washington's experimental toe dip into charter schools, promises to be serious heavy lifting. Opponents are not going to concede and agree to even a limited, publicly accountable experiment in an education system still structured and governed as it was 100 years ago.
The status quo works for them. It works for me also. My child's school is in a top-performing school district unafraid to innovate and change on a dime. But since I shed my rose-colored glasses along with my childhood, I know that's not the case for far too many families.
There's the argument that these nontraditional public schools siphon money from existing schools. That's a divisive tactic. We don't worry that special education, alternative schools or programs for gifted students siphon away funds when students leave one school for another in search of those programs. And the biggest drain on school money? The dropout rate. Schools can't collect money for students who are not enrolled.
Don't worry about appearing anti-union. Yes, the Washington Education Association opposes I-1240, even as it accepts a small crop of innovation schools with similarities to charters. The thing to know here is that there is widespread disagreement within the union. Enough teachers support charters and other reforms to have formed their own group: Teachers United.
Forty-one states have charter schools and in many instances they're working well. In other cases, they are a mixed bag, just like our traditional schools. That was the conclusion of a study on charters by Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO).
But even so, the it-works-in-other-states argument has been co-opted by opponents to mean that outsiders are pushing the charters effort here. That's a strong accusation because it fuels the "stay out of our local business" refrain heard from opponents lately. History is a great teacher. During the civil-rights era, locals from Mississippi, Alabama and a host of Southern states told the rest of America to stay out if its business.
Thank you for not listening.
On education, the long arc of history is on our side. The public is asking for equal and full access to a high-quality education. More than 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education, we understand that to grant that dream, we're going to have to reshape and reform the public schools. I don't want anyone to be under the misconception that charters is all we're asking for.
A Gallup/PDK poll surveyed Americans and found that getting rid of achievement gaps and improving urban public schools are priorities for most of us -- and most of us are willing to pay more taxes to achieve that goal.
More on the latter later, but we've got an answer on how to do the former. A study by the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington shows charter schools perform better than traditional schools in teaching elementary school reading and math.
Decades from now, we will be surprised we were so nervous about innovating our schools and spreading our educational good fortune to all kids. We'll be surprised that any of us were so close-minded as to be on the wrong side of education history.
Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org Follow her on Twitter @lkvarner
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