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Originally published Friday, May 25, 2012 at 4:00 PM

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A worthwhile conversation about charter schools

Time to start the conversation over charter schools in Washington state. Sign the initiative to start the conversation.

Seattle Times Editorial

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THE charter schools ballot initiative proposed for the November election was born out of parental frustration with the Legislature's failure to move on a key education reform.

The effort is not a Democratic strategy, although many in the party support it, but an educational strategy acknowledging that our schools aren't working for all students. Let lawmakers and the state teachers union argue about money and control. The bottom line: Our schools need new and creative approaches.

You may soon be stopped while shopping and asked to sign the charter-schools petition. Whether you agree or disagree, help start the conversation by adding your name. Nearly 250,000 valid signatures must be collected by July 6.

Charters won't solve all of Washington's educational challenges, but we are way past the point of charters being dismissed out of hand. Voters should have an opportunity to decide.

The charter proposal is thoughtful. A coalition of education-advocacy groups behind the effort is seeking a maximum of 40 public charter schools over five years, operated by qualified nonprofits and overseen by a local school board or a special state commission. The schools would be free and open to everyone.

Priority would be given to charters that serve at-risk students and students from low-performing public schools. Requirements for teaching certification would be the same as in other public schools.

Forty-one states already have charter schools. A promising bill was thwarted in the recent legislative session by hostile committee chairs. But many lawmakers support the concept and this initiative, including Rep. Eric Pettigrew, D-Seattle, and Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island. A growing number of teachers support them as well.

"This initiative is not a referendum on public-school teachers, but rather it's an honest effort to ensure success for every student in Washington," said Todd Hausman, a veteran fourth-grade teacher in Bellingham and member of the Washington Education Association. The union opposes the charter initiative.

The growth of online education, home-schooling and a vibrant private-school industry is evidence of parents' growing understanding that different kids need different educational settings.

Charter schools have the potential to outshine traditional public schools. For example, current burdensome rules limit the power of principals to choose their teachers. A charter principal would be able to tailor staff and programs to meet their students' needs.

Critics say charters will increased segregation. But a drive to South Seattle or parts of Eastern Washington shows we already have schools with higher concentrations of minority and low-income students.

The WEA worries about the money public schools would lose as funding followed students to the new charters. Are they suggesting they should continue to fail some students and keep the money?

Washington state spends $14 billion a biennium on the K-12 system. Lawmakers are looking to add another $1 billion or so to comply with the state Supreme Court ruling on education funding. But parents have the right to demand that money make a difference in educating all students

In Seattle, the teachers union tried to head off charter schools by developing the Creative Schools Approach, in which some schools are given regulatory relief and allowed to innovate. That is an admirable effort, but it does nothing for the tens of thousands of students going to school outside of Seattle.

A 2009 study from Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that nearly one in five charters performed better than public schools, but 37 percent performed worse. More recent studies offer further insight. We have until November to get smarter about charters. But the discussion is long overdue and starts now.

This will be the fourth time voters have weighed in on charters, leading opponents to ask how many times the question must be asked. The answer: As many times as it takes until all children are served in our schools.

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