Op-ed: How to get Washington’s charter schools right

By A.G. Rud and Ken Zeichner

Special to The Times

WASHINGTON voters have approved, by a narrow margin, the creation of charter schools. As state university educators deeply involved in the preparation of teachers and school leaders, we’ve watched the development warily. Now, in the spirit of working with what we have been given, we want to share our concerns about how charters will affect the quality of public education in Washington and suggest ways to stave off problems.

Up to 40 charter schools could open in our state over the next five years, starting as early as fall 2013. Although these charters will be public schools, funded by taxpayers, they will be run by private, “nonprofit” organizations.

The debate about charter schools in our state has focused on whether they will help narrow the achievement gaps as measured by standardized tests. We need to evaluate these schools on how rich and comprehensive their curriculum is for all students and not just on standardized tests.

Are science, the arts, humanities and social studies taught alongside such important skills as critical thinking and problem solving? Or do they just provide a stripped-down curriculum of basic skills in reading and math?

A lean curriculum focused only on improving standardized test scores is common among schools run by charter-management organizations elsewhere in the country. As documented by prominent education historian Larry Cuban, franchise-school operators such as Rocketship often target low-income communities and offer a stripped-down version of schools that most charter advocates would not want for their own children. They’re headed our way.

We must be vigilant to see that charters in Washington offer the same deeper learning and teaching for understanding that exist in more-advantaged public and private schools, rather than the shallow learning that dominates many charters.

Beyond the low-level cognitive skills measured by standardized tests, we need to prepare students to be thoughtful and active citizens in our democracy — as public schools have long sought to do.

We are also concerned about the loss of local control.

Because charter schools will be governed by an appointed board, the new law as it stands offers no public accountability for the use of public funds.

In summary, we propose:

• Ensuring that the charters offer a rich curriculum and not just stripped-down test preparation.

• Making sure the charters are judged by more than whether they can raise standardized test scores. We must also look at such indicators of success as the completion of secondary and some form of postsecondary education or job training.

• Giving parents a voice in how the schools are run. We must avoid the parent disempowerment that has occurred elsewhere with privately run charters.

• Acknowledging that the charters are not necessarily nonprofit. The organizations that run them and receive money from school districts receive tax subsidies and can outsource services to for-profit companies.

Ideally, the law created by Initiative 1240 will be amended to make charter schools accountable to their local districts.

If the law remains as written, we need full public transparency: the names of all applicants for the charter-school commission should be publicly available and the selections explained by state officials; charter applications should be available online; money and buildings transferred by districts to charters, and any additional public funds to charters, must be made public.

Likewise, all evaluations of the charters by the commission must be open to scrutiny.

A.G. Rud is dean of the College of Education at Washington State University; Ken Zeichner is Boeing Professor of Teacher Education at the University of Washington.