Why Washington’s ‘Common School’ Ruling Runs Counter to the Common Good of Students

The Seventy Four reports on the Washington Supreme Court decision: Read our complete coverage

One can only imagine the backslapping and high-fiving among teachers union officials the Friday before Labor Day as they celebrated the unexpected court victory to shut down just-launched charter schools in Washington state.

Finally, they had “proof” that charter schools, which are publicly financed but independently run, are not really “common schools” deserving of public tax dollars.

For the unions and other charter opponents, that’s a legal and political dream come true. More likely, however, this victory will become a temporary high with serious costs attached for students. That’s because it is profoundly at odds with the most progressive project of our day: Modernizing public education so that public schools serve kids dramatically better than they do now.

The court’s finding may feel good for charter critics and may encourage them to double down on resistance to charters elsewhere, but they are on the wrong side of history. In practice, these new schools are more “common” than the schools described in the archaic 1909 law the Washington justices used to shut down the charters.

In truth, the ideal of the common school is one the country has never lived up to. While we romanticize the common school, people too frequently forget that those schools were at different times not open to blacks, religious minorities, or, until the 1970s, students with special needs and disabilities.

Despite serving those groups today, the continuing trend of segregated housing  and the staggeringly uneven performance of different public schools prompts this question: What exactly is all that common about the common school anyway?

In the high-income Seattle suburb of Mercer Island, parents may believe their kids go to a common school. But it doesn’t feel that way to parents across the lake in low-income Rainier Valley, who are barred from the high-performing Mercer schools. In theory, there’s an inter-district choice pathway, but somehow the best suburban schools rarely have spaces or are protected by geography, poor public transportation, or other barriers to public school choice. (More Washington coverage: Families enrolled at charter schools talk to the The Seventy Four about their despair – and determination)

Meanwhile, across the country all manner of educational innovations are diversifying the way we deliver public education. These range from magnet schools and focus schools to online programs — and today’s fast-growing charter school sector that was the flashpoint for the Washington lawsuit.

Charter schools are in the middle of these debates because when legislators look around urban neighborhoods for what works in education they see that charter schools are adding, on average, 40 additional learning days in math and 28 days in reading, according to Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes. In places as diverse as Los Angeles, Boston, and Newark, New Jersey, the results are even stronger.

Not only are the charters producing better results for poor and low-income students and providing parents with more options in the public school system — the reason Washington voters approved charters in a 2012 referendum — they are proving to be accountable to the public, more “common” than traditional public schools.

That accountability starts with parents who choose those schools, or don’t, which is the ultimate accountability. But it also extends to charter school authorizers who oversee these schools. The best authorizers are showing that nuanced accountability measures are possible in the test-obsessed education sector.

Perhaps it’s counterintuitive but some of the fastest-improving charter schools in the nation, such as those found in New Orleans or Washington, D.C., also have the toughest public oversight. Those charters are succeeding in part because public boards move quickly to shutter low-performing schools – something that happens only rarely in the traditional districts.

Think charter schools are less subject to accountability? True, hundreds of low- performing charter schools still need closing, but over the last two years roughly 200 charters per year have closed, many of those due to academic shortcomings.

Data on the number of traditional public schools that close due to academic problems alone are elusive, but analysts agree the infamous federal No Child Left Behind law, criticized by liberals and conservatives alike for being too heavy handed, resulted in few schools being closed solely for academic reasons.

The real tragedy of the Washington court decision is that it undercuts an education strategy increasingly chosen by the most progressive urban superintendents: Folding high-performing charters into their own districts.

In Houston’s Spring Branch schools, for example, a pioneering superintendent worked KIPP and YES Prep charters directly into two middle schools that were struggling to educate low-income Latino students. This year, the program moved into Northbrook High School, where the traditional principal works closely with the YES Prep principal to look for synergies that will help all students, not just the charter school kids. Over the past few years, several hundred educators have toured Spring Branch looking to take some of those ideas back to their schools.

In Denver, Superintendent Tom Boasberg employs a similar strategy, offering space in traditional district buildings to charters that have great track records in preparing low-income students for college work. The result is a growing charter sector, more choices for parents, and a general increase in school quality in Denver.

Thanks to the recent Washington court decision, however, the kind of win-win education innovations seen in Spring Branch and Denver may never be seen in Seattle.

If we’re honest, this fight in Washington isn’t really about whether “common” schools need boards that are elected rather than appointed or even where their funding comes from – issues the ruling turned on.

It’s about the fact that most charter schools teachers are not unionized and consequently not working under rules that prioritize process and adult interests over student outcomes. The flexibility on staffing isn’t all that explains the success of the best charters, but it’s a key ingredient. 

That’s one theme in Dale Russakoff’s new book, “The Prize”, about attempts to reform the awful schools in Newark. The more nimble SPARK Academy school, part of the KIPP charter network, is able to move quickly to address the many needs that arise among students in high-poverty schools. Overall, the charter schools in Newark receive less money, but the efficient charters are able to push more money down to the classroom level, thus making the difference.

So which school better serves the common good, the traditional school that barely keeps its head above water and is awash in the politics of the various adult interests or the high-performing charter that can use its autonomy to focus on students?

Parents know the answer to that question, which explains the hundreds of thousands of parents now on wait lists for charter schools around the country. A desire to stifle that energy is what led to the lawsuit in Washington. However, parental demand can only be resisted for so long.

Whether or not the Washington court decision survives (Washington’s attorney general wants it changed because the precedent jeopardizes a host of public initiatives that do not strictly adhere to the old common school definition), the legal victory is illusory for charter opponents. There is no endgame where parents, especially poor parents, decide that, actually, they don’t want more options.

Meanwhile, as it has throughout our history, the definition of the common school is evolving once again. That’s why regardless of the outcome in Washington, the question with charter schools is not if or whether but rather when, how, and how fast.

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