Give charter schools a chance in Washington | Don Brunell

Hurricane Katrina devastated the gulf coast in 2005, flooding cities and towns in four states and killing more than 1,800 people.  The government response to Katrina, especially by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), became the poster child for an inept and incompetent bureaucracy.

But out of this disaster has come a story of success. The hurricane gave New Orleans educators the opportunity to reinvent the city’s failing public schools.

Two years before the storm struck, the state had created the Louisiana Recovery School District (RSD) to turn around a school system that was riddled with corruption and teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Nearly 75 percent of eighth graders could not meet the basic reading standard and 70 percent scored below the basic math standard. The New Orleans public school system was the lowest performing district in Louisiana and Louisiana was the second-lowest performing state in the nation.

When Hurricane Katrina struck, the RSD controlled only five of the state’s 128 failing schools.  The massive storm was a game changer, opening the way to a vast expansion of charter schools. By the start of the 2014 school year, all of the RSD schools in New Orleans were charter schools and nine out of 10 of the city’s students were in charter schools.

According to the Christian Science Monitor, test scores and graduation rates have climbed steadily in New Orleans. And while there are fewer public school students than before the storm – 43,000, down from 65,000 – the demographics are similar: 90 percent African-American (compared with 94 percent pre-Katrina) and 82 percent low-income (up from 77 percent).

Not all of RSD’s charter schools were successful. RSD shut down or did not renew the contracts of six charter schools that failed to meet standards, proving low performing charter schools are dealt with swiftly.

Charter schools are independent public schools that are free to be more innovative but are held strictly accountable for improved student achievement. Charter schools let parents “vote with their feet,” creating a market-based approach that promotes competition among public schools pushing them to improve.

Nationwide, only about five percent of public school students attend charter schools. But in Detroit, 51 percent attended charters in 2012-13, and in Washington, D.C., 43 percent, reports the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Another four cities topped 30 percent.

The Christian Science Monitor reports that Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee are already replicating some of New Orleans’ approaches, supported by a federal grant to turn around their lowest-performing schools. Missouri’s board of education is considering a New Orleans-style takeover of the troubled Kansas City schools.

It is a different story here in Washington, where a voter-approved charter school law is being blocked.

Initiative 1240 allows the establishment of up to 40 charter schools in our state at a rate of no more than eight a year. The initiative, approved by voters in 2012, specifies that low-income, at-risk students be given priority.  Charter schools must meet the same rigorous certification and performance standards and teachers must be certified just as they are in traditional schools.

But the Washington Education Association wants the Washington State Supreme Court to rule that charter schools don’t meet the definition of “common schools” in the state Constitution and therefore should not be funded with tax dollars.

Voters approved I-1240 because they want a choice, an alternative to our state’s traditional public schools.  Since students learn differently, voters want to give charter schools a chance.

It is time for the opponents to throw in the towel and allow another approach.  If charter schools can work in New Orleans and in 42 other states, they can work in our state too.