Frustration Over Failing Schools Reaches the Tipping Point
By Don C. Brunell
There comes a time when enough is enough. No more excuses, no more delays.
In 1986, hospitals, local governments, schools, small businesses and doctors were fed up with the high cost of personal injury lawsuits and liability insurance. They successfully lobbied for tort reform legislation, which was signed into law by Gov. Booth Gardner.Fast forward to 2012 and you see that same tipping point with our public schools.
Taxpayers are tired of hearing, “Just give us more money and we’ll fix our schools.” We’ve been there, done that and nothing has changed. Washington students who cannot afford a private education are locked into traditional public schools, many of which are failing to prepare them to succeed.
According to Christine Campbell, a research analyst at the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education, only one-third of our minority students meet state standards in math and science, and the Legislature found that half of all high school graduates need remedial education courses in college. Clearly more must be done to ensure graduates have the skills needed to succeed in life after high school.
After Democrat lawmakers spurned a modest charter school proposal last session, a wide array of concerned people came together to support an initiative that would allow Washington to establish up to 40 public charter schools. To make the November ballot, they must turn in 241,000 signatures by July 6.
More than 5,700 public charter schools serve almost two million children and their families in 41 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Oregon has more than 100 charter schools; Idaho more than 30. But they've been voted down here in 1996, 2000 and 2004. A bill to authorize them surfaced in this year's legislative session but did not come up for a vote.
Opponents point out that some public charter schools have failed. True, but lots of traditional public schools have failed as well. The difference is students in public charter schools have a choice. They can switch to a better school, while students locked into failing traditional public schools have no alternative.
That painful reality was vividly portrayed in the documentary, “Waiting for Superman.”
Produced and directed by Davis Guggenheim, who produced Al Gore’s documentary on global warming, the film follows the plight of five struggling inner city families desperate to find better schools for their children. Because there are not enough charter schools to accommodate all the students who want to attend, officials assign students by lottery. If they don’t “win” the lottery, parents are left to watch helplessly as their children remain mired in failing schools.
One single mom profiled in the documentary had previously scraped up enough money to send her daughter to a private school but had to withdraw her when she was laid off. She turned instead to the charter school lottery as a last resort — but her daughter’s name was not called. As a result, we all lost, robbed of the achievements her daughter and other children might have made if they’d had the chance.
Adding insult to injury, New York City’s school system spends $100 million a year on so-called “rubber rooms,” offices where troubled, suspect or low-performing teachers get full pay to sit idle for years because it is virtually impossible to fire them.
In Washington, D.C., schools, Chancellor Michelle Rhee wanted to reduce administrative office staff, put more teachers in the classroom, increase salaries for good teachers and fire weak principals. She quit after three-and-a-half years when the teachers’ union refused to allow its members to vote on Rhee’s reforms.
The question for us in Washington is will we give parents a choice? Will we give public charter schools — and our children — a chance to create a better future?
About the Author
Don Brunell is the president of the Association of Washington Business. Formed in 1904, the Association of Washington Business is Washington’s oldest and largest statewide business association, and includes more than 7,800 members representing 700,000 employees. AWB serves as both the state’s chamber of commerce and the manufacturing and technology association. While its membership includes major employers like Boeing, Microsoft and Weyerhaeuser, 90 percent of AWB members employ fewer than 100 people. More than half of AWB’s members employ fewer than 10. For more about AWB, visit www.awb.org.