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Originally published Wednesday, March 28, 2012 at 5:00 PM

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If voters favor charter schools, why can't state lawmakers?

Washington voters overwhelmingly favor charter schools and other educational options. Guests columnists Robert Enlow and Jonathan Bechtle ask why state legislators can't listen to their constituents on the way to improve public education.

Special to The Times

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As state lawmakers consider reforms to public education, much of their focus it seems has been on the opinions of union leaders and campaign donors. Although their views certainly matter, it's also important to consider the opinions of Washington voters and residents on how to move Washington's schools forward.

Chief among the education policies debated this session has been whether Washington should become the 43rd state to adopt a charter-school law. Charter schools are tuition-free public schools freed from many state and local regulations in exchange for stronger accountability, as outlined in their "charter." Should a charter school fail to meet that contract, it is shut down.

Such an agreement gives teachers and principals the power to be more flexible and innovative in how they educate students. Charter schools are public schools for the 21st century.

Unfortunately, a very vocal lobby in the state capital has kept Washington public schools mired in 20th-century practices. And Washington voters are ready for a change.

A public-opinion poll recently released by our organizations found that Washington voters favor charter schools by an overwhelming margin of 60 percent in support versus 23 percent opposed. Moreover, charter schools enjoy majority support among Democrats (51 percent), Republicans (70 percent) and independents (65 percent).

To corroborate those findings, a poll released last month by the Washington Policy Center found that 60 percent of Washingtonians support charter schools, particularly those that serve low-income and urban families.

Some may find those results surprising. We don't.

As more states adopt school-choice policies — charter schools, online learning, private-school scholarships and so on — it is becoming clearer than ever that greater choice and more high-quality educational options are the best ways to ensure each child's unique needs are met. Washington residents have yet to experience this benefit. But if it were available, they would take advantage of it.

Today, 93 percent of Washington students attend traditional public schools. However, according to our survey of state voters, if Washingtonians were given the opportunity to select any type of school for their children, only 40 percent would choose traditional public schools. Among the others, 1 percent would choose virtual schools, 7 percent would prefer to home school, 14 percent would opt for charter schools and 35 percent would pick private-school settings. Washington's current policies are not in sync with parents' schooling preferences.

But those responses also prove that charter schools are not the be-all and end-all of education reform. States must ensure that families are able to access all types of schooling options. And, in some states, they are.

Last year, in what was called "The Year of School Choice," 13 states grew their private-school-choice environments; for example, Indiana made nearly 60 percent of its residents (from low- and middle-income families) eligible for private-school scholarships.

In Utah, state lawmakers improved their state's online-learning environment by allowing students' public education dollars to "follow" them to courses chosen by their parents. Maine enacted the nation's most recent charter-school law.

Washington's neighbors in Oregon and Idaho are also creating more growth opportunities for online learning and charter schools.

Such changes are possible in Washington. By looking to their constituents, Washington lawmakers can obtain what they've failed to get this legislative session: a majority opinion on how to improve public education.

Robert Enlow is president and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, the legacy foundation of Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman headquartered in Indianapolis. Jonathan Bechtle is CEO of the Freedom Foundation, a free-market think tank based in Olympia.

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