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Originally published Sunday, October 21, 2012 at 4:00 PM

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Op-ed: Approve Initiative 1240 to allow public charter schools

If we stand to gain a few outstanding charter schools in Washington state, Initiative 1240 is worth approving, writes guest columnist Katie Baird.

Special to The Times

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THREE previous swings at establishing public charter schools in Washington came up empty, so why are proponents for them still at bat?

Passion for charter schools is part of the reason Initiative 1240 is on the Nov. 6 ballot. Another reason is that hope springs eternal — a changing political environment opens up new possibilities and with it, perhaps, a different outcome. Finally, a new campaign for charters might succeed in dispelling common arguments against them that could change the debate.

One common argument is that there’s no evidence the average public charter school outperforms traditional public schools. While true, this fact shouldn’t lead to the conclusion that charters aren’t good for Washington’s children.

To explain why not, imagine you’re the manager of an average baseball team, and you want to improve it. You check out the new players you could possibly hire but conclude that on average the available players are no better than what you’ve already got. Sure, some are better, perhaps a lot better. But some players are worse — maybe a lot worse.

Would you then reach the conclusion that it’s pointless trying to improve your team because on average the available talent out there is no better than what you’ve got? Of course not. “On average” doesn’t mean that everyone is average. We know that of baseball players.

And we also know it of charter schools: While on average they may not be any better than our traditional public schools, some charters are outstanding. That, rather than the average, is what should catch our attention. If we can get those overperforming schools in our state, our school system would improve in the same way that getting an overperforming first baseman would improve the Mariners.

The key question about charter schools then is: Can we pick out the underperformers from the overperformers? If not, then there’s not much reason for them. But if we can tell the difference, it’s irrelevant if the average charter school is no better than what we have because we’re not after the average.

I-1240 is carefully designed to maximize the chance of creating high-performing schools. All charter schools must meet high standards, they’re all closely monitored and they’re all subject to regular, transparent procedures for renewing or revoking a school’s charter. These are the features associated with the high-performing charters elsewhere.

A second argument made against I-1240 is that they take money away from public schools.

This claim only makes sense if there is something privileged about the current, traditional way in which we deliver public education. If not, and if what we care about is how much we spend on our kids’ education, then this argument is baseless — charters do not reduce the amount spent on each child. Whether we have charters or not, money spent in our public school system follows students, not buildings. Charter schools would simply rearrange where education dollars are spent.

That the public tends to associate public schools with a particular form of bureaucratic delivery is, I believe, a key shortcoming of our educational system.

School systems in most other countries typically embrace a diverse set of schools within them; this diversity means countries pay closer attention than we do to outcomes rather than adherence to bureaucratic rules. This helps explain why countries elsewhere don’t generate the huge achievement gaps that we find in the United States. If I-1240 could help us prioritize equal outcomes over uniform practices within schools, we’d be on our way to having a stronger school system.

Without these two common arguments against charter schools, it’s hard to see what other ones could trump a change that holds out the promise of better schools. Here’s hoping this time a fourth swing for charter schools connects with Washington’s voters.

Katie Baird is an associate professor of economics at the University of Washington Tacoma. Her new book is “Trapped in Mediocrity: Why Our Schools Aren’t World-Class and What We Can Do About It.”

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