Charters aren’t an ‘experiment’; test scores positive

Tacoma’s two charter schools recently gave the News Tribune an update on their test scores and operations, and it’s positive news. These two schools are proving their value to Tacoma as alternatives for some families for whom regular public schools have not been a good fit.

Of course, we call them charter schools, but for the moment they’re really not. Summit Olympus, Destiny Charter Middle School, and the state’s other charter schools are operating with temporary private funds after the state Supreme Court ruled against the charter initiative’s funding structure. They will only operate again as charter schools if the Legislature and the governor grant them a stay of execution.

When thinking about these positive test scores, it’s important to start with the baseline. “The growth occurred even though nearly half of Summit Olympus students entered school in the fall an average of four years below grade-level in reading and math,” the News Tribune reported. That’s a failure of the system. Starting from there, Summit Olympus officials say their students:

  • “More than doubled the national average growth in reading and more than tripled the national average growth in math.
  • Placed in the top third of schools in math growth.”

At Destiny Charter Middle School:

  • “80 percent of students started the school year reading below grade level. But in three months, more than a third of students grew a grade level or two on the nationally normed Scholastic Reading Inventory.
  • 30 percent of students left the school’s math intervention program by the start of the second semester.”

The special interventions and support services that charter schools are so good at providing are working for these students. After years of falling behind their peers, these kids are now moving ahead.

The positive results caught the eye of the News Tribune editorial board, too. They wrote a positive editorial this weekend saying the Legislature should “keep [the charters] experiment alive.” While the editorial was a good one, a friend who is an education expert observed that viewing charters as an “experiment” is the wrong perspective:

“Nice editorial, but after 25 years, 42 states, and 250,000 students in 6,800 schools, it’s hardly an experiment anymore. It’s an established part of the public education landscape in this country.  Characterizing charters as an ‘experiment’ is not only wrong but harmful. It marginalizes charter schools as something new, unproven, and implicitly risky, when they are none of those things. But this is the classic Washington myopia, the chronic inability to see beyond the borders of this state that is so immediately evident to people like me who moved here from other states.”

We still don’t know what the Legislature will choose to do regarding charter schools’ future. The News Tribune’s report noted, “[House Speaker Frank] Chopp has said consistently that he favors an approach that would place charter schools under the umbrella of public school boards and districts as alternative programs.” But the very idea of charter schools is to cast off some of the rules and bureaucracy that some districts would try to re-impose.

The paper’s editorial accurately characterized the Tacoma School Board as, along with the state teachers union, “charter naysayers.” That’s the problem with Chopp’s preferred route. Is the solution to put a board whose members don’t buy into the whole notion of charter schools back in charge of them? That doesn’t make a lot of sense, and it’s not what’s best for kids who left their last school “an average of four years below grade-level in reading and math.”
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.