Seattle Times story shows charter school law is working

December 10, 2014

A front-page story in The Seattle Times by Leah Todd reports on troubles at First Place Scholars Charter School, the headline saying the school is in “disarray” over recent leadership changes. Yet the details of the story show that Washington’s best-in-the-nation charter school law is working as intended.

The school’s first principal and five board members have left. The First Place board has selected a new chair, respected former Democratic state legislator Dawn Mason, and hired a new principal, a former superintendent from Marysville, Linda Whitehead. The new principal in turn is hiring new staff, particularly a special education teacher and two more full-time classroom aides, once background checks are completed. In addition, the principal is submitting a plan this month to make sure the school complies with federal disability law.

The rapid changes are good news for First Place students. Because it is a charter public school, leaders at First Place are responding much faster than traditional public schools, which can languish for years with poor academics and low graduation rates while underserved students age out of their programs. First Place charter school serves low-income and homeless children, whose parents know that a good education is the key to escaping poverty and moving on to a better life.

The same cannot be said of many traditional public schools in Seattle. Principals at these schools do not benefit from the flexibility and rapid improvement afforded by the state charter school law. For example, strict union regulations bar principals from quickly dismissing and hiring teachers as needed to serve the needs of students. Tight seniority rules require that younger teachers are let go first, even when a different decision would be better for students. Parents at Seattle Garfield High School are learning first-hand how heartless the traditional system can be, where a popular teacher is being threatened with dismissal.

The result is a poor-quality public education for too many children. Nine of Seattle’s 95 public schools, comprising 4,000 students, rank in the Lowest Five Percent statewide in the State Board of Education Achievement Index.
These are:
Martin Luther King Elementary School – 356 students
Highland Park Elementary School – 396 students
Cleveland High School – 805 students
West Seattle Elementary School – 443 students
Hawthorne Elementary School – 345 students
Rainier Beach High School – 516 students
Madrona K-8 School – 291 students
Seattle World School – 280 students
Interagency Programs – 616 students

A further eight Seattle public schools are listed as Underperforming on the state Achievement Index.

These public schools fail children year after year, but this outcome is considered business as usual by the system. When parents press about underperforming schools, District officials announce a five-year plan, setting forth distant goals for improvement. When it becomes clear the goals won’t be met, officials simply issue a new five-year plan.

Instead of trapping families in a tiresome unproductive cycle, traditional schools could give principals control over their budgets, end seniority assignments, which send the neediest children to the least capable teachers, and allow local schools to hire the best teachers, regardless of union rules.

Many Seattle families believe nothing can be done, because the power of the central office and the SEA teachers union seems too great. The system works well for adults, but often shorts children. District officials certainly benefit from Seattle’s $689 million school budget, much of which is spent on administration. Typically, only 59 cents of every education dollars makes it to the classroom.

It may look like bad press, but the attention First Place Scholars Charter School is receiving is a good thing. Families there say they plan to keep their children at the school, and enrollment is expected to increase over the next few years.

The attention and flexibility afforded by the state charter school law means low-income and homeless students at First Place are quickly getting the educational help they need, something that cannot be said about too many of our public schools.

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