Editorial: heraldnet.com, July 10, 2013

Last-gasp suit over charters waste of time

By Richard S. Davis

The education obstructionists are back. The establishment forces aligned against reform filed suit in King County Superior Court July 3 to block the charter school law approved by the voters last November. Losers litigating has become a staple of initiative battles here.

Back in February they asked the attorney general -- I say asked, they called it a "legal demand" -- to start proceedings against the law, citing seven putative constitutional violations. Attorney General Bob Ferguson, noting that it's his job "to defend the will of the voters," declined the invitation. He'll now defend the law in court.

The demand turns out to have been a rough draft for the challenge filed last week. Predictably, the plaintiffs -- prominently including the Washington Education Association and Washington Association of School Administrators -- claim the charter school act diverts money from the public schools. They also raise objections to charter school governance and collective bargaining provisions.

Supporters of the new law expect to prevail. Jana Carlisle, executive director of the Partnership for Learning, points out that the initiative was drafted in consultation with experts in constitutional law.

"We are confident the law will pass muster," she says.

Jim Spady, a prominent supporter of public charter schools, calls the lawsuit "frivolous and a needless distraction."

As Spady says, over the last 20 years, most states have adopted legislation permitting charter schools.

"Almost all of these laws were challenged in court by unions and others," he adds, "and these laws are all still there. This lawsuit ... will be no different."

I hope so. Still, there's something tiresome about the litigation, the regressive progressives who bring it, and the unrelenting effort to students a chance at a better education.

No money is being diverted; charter schools are public schools. The State Board of Education, an independent state agency, oversees implementation of the law. The funding, governance and collective bargaining issues were thoroughly vetted during the campaign.

Remember the exceedingly modest reform represented by I-1240. It authorizes no more than 40 public charter schools over five years, with a maximum of eight in a single year. The law specifically aims to provide alternatives for "at-risk" students or students in low-performing public schools. The people drafting the initiative put two decades of national experience to good use, writing one of the nation's best laws.

A new study by Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) looked at charter school performance in 27 states. The researchers found, "students with multiple challenges -- blacks and Hispanics in poverty or Hispanics who were English language learners -- gained a substantial learning advantage in charter schools compared to [similar students in traditional public schools]."

CREDO notes that performance varies across states. Charter school students showed "significantly stronger" reading growth than traditional public school students in 16 of the 27 states and weaker in eight. In math, charter school students had "stronger growth" than traditional public school students in 12 states, and weaker growth in 13 states. Among the factors influencing the results are differences in overall education quality among the states and the geographic targeting of the charter schools.

The protections built into Initiative 1240 suggest that our state will rank among the top performers. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools ranks Washington's charter school law as the third best in the nation (out of 43). We're faulted for limiting the number of schools to 40 and not providing enough support to facility needs. We get high marks for quality controls, including transparency in decision-making, performance-based contracts, monitoring and data collection, and procedures for renewal and revocation.

Reformers are justifiably impatient. Sensing defeat, the obstructionists feel threatened enough to frustrate paths to scholastic success for students desperately in need of proven alternatives. The lawsuit isn't about money. It's about the people in control of public education fighting to retain their control.

In a column last November, I asked whether charter school opponents remained intransigent because they believe the schools will fail, or because they fear they might succeed.

With this lawsuit, the opponents answer the question. They can't abide competition and choice.


Richard S. Davis is president of the Washington Research Council. His email address is rsdavis@simeonpartners.com

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