BRUNELL: Washington state students would benefit from charter school legislation

In the competition for $3.4 billion in education grants under President Obama’s Race to the Top, Washington is near the bottom.

In the competition for $3.4 billion in education grants under President Obama’s Race to the Top, Washington is near the bottom. We ranked 32nd out of the 36 states that applied.

While the Race to the Top program stresses innovative reform and stringent evaluation of student and teacher performance, our application was a mishmash of platitudes and promises. But chief among our shortcomings was a lack of support for reforms from the teachers unions and our anti-charter schools law.

Charter schools are a major focus of the administration’s education reforms. Nearly 40 percent of the students in the nation’s capital now attend charter schools. While charter schools are not required in order to secure Race to the Top funds, our state’s blatant opposition is a major handicap.

Charter schools are independent public schools that control their own budgets, design their own criteria and make their own hiring decisions. Parents can choose to enroll their children, or not. If they become dissatisfied, they can leave. Not every charter school succeeds, but across the nation, charter schools have become the catalyst for innovation and rising student achievement.

Nowhere is that more evident than in New Orleans.

Leslie Jacobs, a former member of the Louisiana State Board of Education, writes in The Wall Street Journal that in 2007, fewer than half of New Orleans’ fourth graders could pass the state’s standardized tests and only four out of 10 eighth graders passed.

After Hurricane Katrina, the state took over all but 16 of the city’s public schools and vastly expanded the number of charter schools in the city. Today, nearly 70 percent of the children in New Orleans attend charter schools.

The result? The number of fourth graders and eighth graders who pass the state’s standardized tests has jumped by 30 percent. The percentage of high school students who meet the state standards has jumped by 44 percent for English and 45 percent for math. This big improvement has occurred even as the schools are serving a higher percentage of low-income students – 84 percent – than before the storm, and despite the fact that many of the students missed months of school.

Parents are taking note. A recent poll by Tulane University found that two-thirds of the respondents supported the state takeover of New Orleans’ schools and nearly 80 percent thought parents should be able to send their children to any school in the city.

The next big innovation in charter schools may be specialization. Here in Washington, we’ve taken a few hesitant steps in that direction.

In the Puget Sound region, students considering a career in engineering or aeronautics can apply to Aviation High School, the only college preparatory aviation-themed high school in the Northwest. Highline Public Schools operates the school; enrollment is open to students in surrounding districts. Aviation High has tapped into the region’s strong aerospace connections to provide a rigorous curriculum and real-world opportunities for the next generation of scientists, explorers and engineers.

In Federal Way, Todd Beamer High School’s academy approach focuses on three academic areas: business and industry, math, science, health and fitness, and the School of Global Leadership and Economics. Except for rare openings, enrollment is limited to students within the district.

Both Aviation High and Todd Beamer High suggest there is an appetite in Washington for creative reforms, but their ability to innovate is limited. However, with charter schools, parents and teachers across our state could create schools that fit the needs of their community.

Charter schools are public schools. Even though they are more independent, they must meet specific criteria and performance standards in order to earn and maintain accreditation.

The best thing about charter schools is they give parents, teachers and students a choice. Perhaps that is what union leaders fear most.

Don Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business.

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