Charter schools will serve Washington well

December 21, 2013 

As the new year approaches, Washington is beginning an exciting new chapter in public education. Last month, 21 parents, teachers, community leaders, and organizations applied to open charter schools.

Approved by voters last November, these schools will offer new opportunities to students—especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

One organization applying is Summit Public Schools. For the past 10 years, 96 percent of graduates from San Francisco’s Bay Area Summit Public Schools have been accepted into four-year colleges and universities. In fact, Summit was recognized by Newsweek as one of the Top 10 Miracle Schools in the country.

Summit students learn through an innovative model that combines highly individualized learning with a focus on developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills. “Expeditions” take students outside the classroom to enrich their education and explore careers. Teachers at Summit work in teams, providing personalized instruction to students who progress at varying paces.

Is the Summit model right for every student? No — and that’s exactly the point. Charter schools allow teachers, administrators, and parents to develop innovative curriculum designs to better meet the needs of all students, all while being held accountable for raising student achievement.

Longtime local public school teachers and leaders such as Brenda McDonald from Spokane and Kristina Bellamy-McClain from Seattle are applying to open schools because they want to create classrooms that will improve learning for Washington’s underserved students.

Brenda is a principal and former special-education teacher. Kristina is a principal at an elementary school with a large proportion of low-income students. They both know how important it is to serve every single child, especially those in need.

Nationally, more than 2 million children are served by nearly 6,000 public charter schools. Yet there simply aren’t enough schools to keep up with parent demand. Indeed, one million student names sit on charter school wait lists.

Interest in charter is high because charter schools are giving new hope to parents who want their child to be best prepared for college and life.

Of 16 independent studies published since 2010, 15 found positive academic performance results for charters schools compared to traditional schools. One study from Stanford University shows charter schools are closing achievement gaps between white and minority students, and yielding significant gains for African-American students, low-income students, and English-language learners.

What’s thrilling about this success is that charter schools are public schools, tuition-free, and open to every family. They must adhere to the same standards, assessments, health, safety, nondiscrimination laws, teacher certification, and accounting principles as traditional public schools.

And because charter schools are public schools, they are funded the same way as other public schools — through federal, state, and local money sent to schools based on the number of children who attend.

What sets charters apart is that they’re managed independent of school districts by individual boards of directors. This lets educators such as Brenda and Kristina make decisions in the best interest of their students — authority most schools would like, but many do not have.

Since charter schools have been around for more than 20 years, Washington has the benefit of learning from other states’ experiences. Washington’s charter law is one of the most rigorous in the nation. It calls for transparent school applications, reviews and decision-making, performance-based contracts, comprehensive data collection and monitoring, and a clear process for determining when schools should be allowed to renew their charters or be closed.

When any new idea comes about, some resist it. A lawsuit has been filed to block Washington’s voter-passed charter school law. We’ve seen similar challenges in other states, none of which have been successful. Last week, a Superior Court judge ruled that charter schools can move forward, despite opponents’ claims.

There is room for all kinds of public schools in Washington. Public charter schools offer teachers and school leaders the freedom to unleash their creativity to build schools that fit the diverse needs of Washington’s students.

Nina Rees is the president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

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