This November, Washington could become the 42nd state to authorize charter schools. Washington residents will vote on Initiative 1240, which if passed will “allow a maximum of up to 40 public charter schools to be establish over a five-year period as independently managed public schools operated only by qualified nonprofit organizations approved by the state,” according to the measure’s ballot language.
Opponents of Initiative 1240, including the Washington Education Association (WEA), claim charter schools in Washington would hinder the state’s constitutional responsibility to fund education. The WEA’s political action website says the measure would “drain millions from Washington’s K-12 public schools” into privately run charter schools—even though charter schools are publicly funded institutions and thus do not take money away from public education.
A more likely explanation for the unions’ opposition is the loss of its monopoly over public education finances. Another reason is the possibility it could make it harder to gain new members. Most charter schools are not unionized and organizing campaigns are expensive.
Critics of the initiative also claim it violates the state’s constitution because it discriminates against some students, since not every child will be able to attend a charter school. The Washington Constitution’s Article IX says the state will provide public education “without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex.” However, the ballot language states charter schools will “be free and open to all students just like traditional public schools” and prevents charter school officials from handpicking students.
Another grievance against charter schools is an alleged lack of public accountability. But the public school system already faces a lack of accountability. Without competition, it faces little pressure to improve. In addition, publicly funded charter schools, including those run by private nonprofit organizations, still will be held to the same academic standards as traditional public schools. The ballot language stipulates oversight and authorization of these charter schools will be the responsibility of either a newly created state charter school board or a local school board.
Opponents continually cite a Stanford/CREDO study to challenge the effectiveness of charters schools. It concludes that only 17 percent of charter schools provide a superior education to traditional public schools. Maybe that’s so. But if charter schools are so inferior, why do parents fight tooth and nail to get in? The answer: Accountability. Charter schools have the flexibility to adjust curriculum to meet student needs, to allow teachers the freedom to innovate and to dismiss teachers who don't measure up.
Unions say the answer is to spend more on traditional public schools. Yet, as University of Arkansas professor Jay P. Greene noted recently in the Wall Street Journal, as a whole, the United States has hired more teachers every year since 1970, but reading and math scores have barely budged, and calls for improvement go unheeded.
It's not that the WEA opposes all ballot initiatives. It supports Referendum 74, which would legalize gay marriage. If it permits choice in marriage, why not choice in education?