Why I Believe in Washington State’s Charter Schools


Why I Believe in Washington State’s Charter Schools

Last Thursday, I attended the Washington State Charter School Commission Meeting, where many passionate parents, teachers and community members shared what charters meant to them. They also expressed frustration over potentially having this choice taken away by the State Supreme Court due to what amount to disputes between the court and the legislature over money.

Below is an edited version of the public comment I made on why I believe in charter schools.

Innovation. It’s a word often associated with charter schools. People want and expect charter schools to be innovative. “The flexibility to innovate” is listed as one of the purposes of Washington’s charter school initiative, I-1240.

People have widely varying ideas about what “innovation” means in public education. Some people think it means flexibility to make decisions about people and money; others think it means smaller schools with special focus; still others think it means competition. While these are all things that charter schools can do, I’m not sure it’s what makes them innovative.

No, what makes charters truly innovative is public accountability.

Accountability that starts with decisions that the authorizer makes about every charter school, the decision to approve a school. Historically, local school boards decide whether to open or close a school based primarily on whether demographic projections show that they need more seats and whether their finances show that they have the money to build the school.

With charter schools, the first basis for the decision about whether to approve a school is this: Is this likely to be a public school that is going to educate children well? Making this question the basis for the decision to start a new public school is, for me, perhaps the most important innovation of charter schools.

And anyone who has been involved with starting one of the eight charter schools that the State Supreme Court is trying to shut down would probably be surprised at the notion that there is allegedly a lack of accountability.

The Commission’s approval process was a rigorous process. Applicants had to show that they were ready—that they had the educational plan, the organizational plan, the business plan and the people to make it work. In retrospect, I’m sure anyone running a charter school would say that getting approved is easy compared to the really challenging work of educating children well. I also know that they had to really earn that first step, including showing that they had support from the local community.

I believe in charter schools because they are accountable to the public and the community before they are even allowed to exist.

To date, the Commission has denied many more applicants than it has approved. It has been more selective in approving charter applications than Harvard’s Graduate School of Education is in admitting students.

But the State Supreme Court says charter schools are not accountable enough.

So let’s look at a second way that charter schools are accountable to the public. Whether the authorizer is the Commission or a local school board like Spokane Public Schools, every charter school has a contract—a charter—that includes outcomes they must achieve for and with their students. If they don’t educate children well, they don’t get to continue to exist.

We saw this very clearly with the Commission’s oversight of First Place Scholars over the past year. The Commission saw that First Place was struggling in a number of ways and it stepped in quickly. It made clear in no uncertain terms that the problems needed to be remedied if the school was going to continue to exist.

We all know this because it was front page news in Washington numerous times over the last school year. Many of the stories about charter schools in 2014-15 were about the Commission holding a school accountable for performance.

But the State Supreme Court says charter schools are not accountable enough to the local community.

That’s why the third way that charter schools are accountable is, perhaps, the most important both legally and democratically. The court ruled that, at least by 1909’s standards, there is not enough local control for charter schools.

Let’s think, for a moment, about what local control means, or should mean, in a democracy. If the State Supreme Court can rely on a case from 1909 to say what it thinks the law should be in 2015, then I’m going to top the Court and look to 1835 when Alexis de Tocqueville published his analysis of American democracy. One of de Tocqueville’s keenest and most prescient observations about the power of democracy in the United States was that when there is a problem to be solved or a need to be filled in our democracy, instead of always looking to the government, Americans frequently look first and foremost to each other:

Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have … associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. …Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association…

de Tocqueville never heard of or conceived of a charter school, but he would have pointed to them as the paradigm of what he admired most in American democracy. Charter schools are an example of individuals coming together in a voluntary association to meet a public need and do a public good. No one assigns the school leader to a charter school. Teachers are not required to work there based on seniority. Most importantly, children and families are not placed there based on geographic lines. Charter schools don’t have the luxury of being assured that they will have students. They have to earn every student they get and they have to work to keep them there. Local children and families who pay for public schools with their taxes get to vote for (or against) charter schools with their feet.

Everyone involved in a charter school from the board president to the youngest child is there because they and their families have made a choice to be there and to associate themselves with that school. That’s direct democracy.

Accountability doesn’t get more local or more democratic than that.

Since we are having this conversation because of a supreme court, I close with an observation that comes from a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. The great Justice Louis Brandeis said, “The only title in our democracy superior to that of President is the title of citizen.” I believe in charter schools because they represent citizens coming together and dedicating themselves to providing something good for their community, arguably the greatest good that a democracy can offer: a great public education.

I applaud the Washington Charter School Commission for its work, which in a short time has proven to be a national model for what quality authorizing and charter school oversight looks like.

Most of all, Washington’s charter school leaders, governing boards, teachers, and families deserve the recognition for the work they are doing for children despite the uncertainty created by the court. More than anything else, they are why I believe in charter schools.