WEA won’t take charter schools lying down

What a surprise to see a bill passed by the 2004 Legislature authorizing charter schools, considering the concept is opposed by the Washington Education Association (WEA), Seattle School Board, the Democratic Party and was twice turned down at the polls by the voters.

What is a charter school? It’s a school independent of district control that organizes its own instruction day and is given a freer hand in educating disadvantaged and poor students, although any kid may apply to attend. Charter schools can have longer hours and school years, more innovative programs and are not bound by union contracts.

Organizers sign a five-year contract and pass performance audits of the academic progress of their students or lose their charter. Washington is one of only 10 states that have not allowed charter schools because we run our schools to suit the WEA.

Our superintendent of public instruction usually is a former officer of the WEA. Terry Bergeson is a former WEA president.

A failing school can be converted into a charter school or new ones can be created. The bill that passed allows creation of 45 new ones over six years. Conversion schools are limited to existing schools eligible for school improvement assistance or failing for three consecutive years to achieve the progress expected in the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Gov. Gary Locke is on board. WEA president Charles Hasse was furious, of course, since these new schools will have to be funded the same as public schools. The WEA will work to “mitigate” the bill’s effect, he said.

My concern is this. The Democratic party encourages school board membership to promote its interests, which include pro-WEA opposition to charter schools and vouchers. If an application for a charter school has to go through the school board, what happens if some board members oppose it?

A letter to the editor of the Seattle PI on March 17 blasting charter schools was signed simply Catherine Ahl, Poulsbo. Mrs. Ahl is president of the North Kitsap school board. Some in-house resistance is presumed in other districts around the state, the SPI’s office says.

Here’s the process: A nonprofit corporation may apply for charter approval and its application first goes to the local school board, which must decide within 45 days whether to reject it outright or hold a public hearing.

If it is rejected, reasons must be given. A rejected application can be appealed to the SPI who must attempt to mediate a resolution with the board and the applicant.

If no resolution is reached, the SPI must approve a charter if it meets the application criteria, is within the annual limits and is consistent with legislative intent and in the best interests of the students. If approved by the SPI, an Education Service District board may become the alternative sponsor.

If no ESD agrees to do it, the SPI becomes the alternate sponsor.

In their new book “No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning,” famed educators Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom say, “Unless more schools are freed from the constraints of the traditional public school system, the racial gap in academic achievement will not significantly narrow, we suspect. Indeed, every urban school should become a charter...The roadblocks to creating charter schools are substantial.

“A great many people have a powerful vested interest in maintaining the educational status quo and anything that will rock the boat will be bitterly resisted. The profession does not reward imaginative, ambitious, competitive innovators. Educators are enmeshed in a political web, which means school reform is often not about children, but about power. Rules, regulations, politics and a culture hostile to reform all constrain those who want change. Unions have enormous power, and yet what’s good for the unions is not necessarily good for kids.”

The black community has been loud and clear about closing the learning gap between their kids and white kids. I hope they closely monitor the WEA’s “mitigation” attempts — as should we all.

Adele Ferguson can be reached at P.O. Box 69, Hansville, WA 98340.

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