Seattle School Board Votes to Defend the Status Quo

My child struggles in school. She needs extra help. As parents, my wife and I worry about her future, and like all parents we want to give her a quality education and the best possible start in life. In our case, she got assigned to a good Seattle public school. She has great teachers and receives the support she needs. Not every family is so fortunate.

Each year, the school district assigns thousands of children in our city to low-performing public schools. In some schools, more than half of students drop out, restricting their life chances and making it likely they will never complete their education. Meanwhile, concerned parents wait for promised changes that never seem to come.

Given the pressing needs of children, you would think school board president Michael DeBell and the six other board members would be open to considering any practical reform that helps struggling students learn, especially one that has bipartisan support and is already working in other states. Disappointingly, the opposite is true.

On a recent Wednesday evening, the school board devoted part of its business meeting to debating and passing a resolution against Initiative 1240, the ballot measure to allow a limited number of charter schools to open in our state.

Charter schools are not some risky, far-out idea. They have existed for over 20 years, and today operate in 41 states and the District of Columbia. They serve two million children, many from minority and low-income families who otherwise would be condemned to failing urban schools. Charter schools are popular; 600,000 students are on waiting lists, enough to fill nearly a thousand schools.

Charter schools are community-based, tuition-free and open to all students. They must meet academic standards and provide the same equal-treatment and public safety protections as other public schools. Initiative 1240 would create a modest reform program within public education, allowing up to 40 charter schools over five years. Priority would be given to serving at-risk children.

These would not always be new schools. Under Initiative 1240 a public school could convert to charter status, with the same students, buildings and budget, but led by a new management team.

Opponents say charter school take money away from public education. Charter schools are public schools, so the money stays in public education, but they are free of many central district mandates. The school board plans to open two new schools in Seattle, but no one thinks this will “drain” money from public schools.

Polling shows Initiative 1240 enjoys broad support and appears likely to pass. Many Seattle public school parents, especially those whose children district officials have assigned to poor-performing schools, are likely to vote for it.

So why would school board members oppose a popular ballot measure that many Seattle parents want? The most likely reason is the adults in the system are primarily concerned about maintaining control. The board’s resolution says district officials do “embrace innovation and educational options,” then lists only programs that they operate.

By opposing charter schools, school board members are telling the public that defending the status quo is their top priority. They would rather let large numbers of students fail each year, and would rather keep sending children to schools they know don’t work (five of the state’s lowest-performance schools are in Seattle), than allow some children to attend an independent public charter school.

All parents want the best education possible for their children, and school board members say they want to provide it, but only if their position of control is not threatened. Instead, we should allow proven alternatives like charter schools, so all children, not just those who happen to get assigned to a good school, have access to a high-quality public education.