Remembering the importance of Washington’s charter schools; rejecting the distraction of national controversies

As the Seattle Times reports, Washington’s charter school policies stand apart from the current controversies associated with the new U.S. Secretary of Education. Reporter Paige Cornwell writes,

It’s too early to tell what impact Betsy DeVos’s tenure as education secretary will have on Washington state’s public-education system. But after DeVos was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, Washington education leaders and advocates agree on one thing: DeVos’ education agenda is in stark contrast with Washington’s.

A key point is the devolution of decision-making to the states, something DeVos supports.

“The federal government has really turned the reins over to the states,” said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research and policy analysis center at the University of Washington Bothell. “I think we will be the masters of our own destiny, for the most part.”

Of particular importance to debates here is an understanding of the role of charter public schools.

DeVos is also an ardent supporter of charter schools, though charter advocates noted her experience with Michigan charters is very different from the Washington charter system. Michigan took an unregulated approach, with fast growth and not a lot of accountability, Lake said.

Even the Washington State Charter Schools Association has questions about DeVos. The nonprofit supports public options, instead of allowing students to move to private schools, said spokeswoman Maggie Meyers. She called Michigan’s and Washington’s’ charter systems “worlds apart.”

“(Washington’s charter system) is about creating additional public options for families who can’t simply move or go to a private school if they’re not receiving the education and services they need at their assigned district school,” she said.

We’ve written often about the successes of charter public schools

A new report from The Brookings Institution evaluates the changing national charter public school debate, which has unfortunately become increasingly entwined with partisan politics. We encourage you to read the whole (brief) report, but call out these excerpts.

Politics makes strange bedfellows, and this certainly has been true for school choice politics. Early voucher and charter programs were rooted in political alliances between conservatives, motivated by market efficiency and individual liberty, and civil rights groups, motivated by equity and opportunity…

Within that framework, charter public schools typically found more bipartisan support than did voucher programs.

Many Democrats—and, of course, teachers unions—have been reluctant to embrace either charters or private school choice programs. Many other Democrats, including former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, have distinguished their generally supportive positions on charter schools from their generally unsupportive positions on vouchers. This distinction might have contributed to charter schools eclipsing private school choice programs in enrollment and public attention.

The current national political dynamic poses risks. 

Charters have tended to grow when and where interests converge, with school choice policies benefiting from dialog across parties. With increasing polarization in how Democratic and Republican leaders are talking—and the Trump administration unlikely to reverse that trend anytime soon—political risk lurks in what is supposed to be a prosperous time for charter schools.

Washington’s charter public school law, the best in the nation, positions these schools in our state for success in expanding student opportunity. It ought not to be caught up in misconceptions and politics having nothing to do with how things work here.