Charter schools on legislative agenda

‘worth the fight’: Many say we can’t wait longer for solution; others worry

BRIAN M. ROSENTHAL; The Seattle TimesJanuary 13, 2012 

Declaring that traditional methods have failed, a bipartisan group of lawmakers formally introduced a pair of bills Thursday that could shake up education policy in the state – if they survive what is sure to be a contentious debate.

The proposals would allow charter schools in the state, establish a process for failing schools to be taken over by outside organizations and continue an overhaul of the way all teachers and principals are evaluated.

Charters, which are public but independent schools allowed to use unconventional techniques, would be closely monitored by a state board, lawmakers said. Only 50 would be allowed in the state – with no more than 10 new ones authorized each year. Each would be required to adopt a specific plan to serve educationally disadvantaged children.

The evaluations, which would include student test scores and classroom observations, would build on a pilot system already used in several districts in the state, lawmakers said.

Poor performance on the evaluations could lead teachers to lose their tenure, but the focus would be on improvement of teaching methods.

“We cannot wait,” Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, said in a news conference announcing the plans. “We cannot sit around and wait while we figure out what is the perfect solution for the kids in the system.”

But some education advocates signaled they will fight the proposals. In a statement, the president of the state teachers union said the bills are a distraction from the Legislature’s obligation to find more education funding.

“The people of Washington are demanding full public education funding for their children and neighborhood schools,” said Mary Lindquist of the Washington Education Association. “Charter schools are a distraction from the real debate and not a full-funding solution.”

The charter school component is likely to be the most contentious of the proposals. While such schools are currently allowed in 42 states, Washington voters have rejected them three times, most recently in 2004.

Other states that don’t allow them are Alabama, Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and West Virginia.

Charters are controversial partly because of their inconsistency – while some have proved successful at closing the achievement gap between rich and poor students, many perform the same as or worse than regular public schools. In addition, the increased freedom given to charters often allows them to hire nonunion employees.

Asked why lawmakers were pursuing legislation instead of again asking voters to approve charters, Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, said he is not willing to risk defeat.

“I don’t think education is something you take a gamble with,” said Tom, a co-sponsor of the bills. “It’s high time that we take care of that here in Olympia.”

Changes to teacher evaluations also have been widely debated, with detractors citing concerns about the fairness of subjective evaluations and the tendency of teachers to teach to the test if they know they are being graded on student scores.

Rep. Eric Pettigrew, D-Seattle, another co-sponsor of the bills, acknowledged the controversial nature of the proposals.

“I know that this elicits a lot of emotion in people,” he said. “But when it’s done for the right reason, when it’s done for kids and the most vulnerable ... it’s well worth the fight.”

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