Wasted time fighting charter schools

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Charter schools are headed for the ballot again. Voters beware: Seeing the truth through the swirling storm of hyperbole and polemics is not going to be easy.

Zealous proponents will call charter schools the answer to all that ails public education. Fervent opponents will declare them the beginning of the end of traditional public schools.

Reasonable voters will see the state's modest new charter-school law for what it is: one creative way to give some of our neediest students a top-notch education.

The charter-school law passed by legislators earlier this year is a careful and limited effort that authorizes just five charter schools a year for the first three years — up to a total of 45 in six years. The law will help spark innovation and provide better schools for disadvantaged students.

The state's largest teachers' union, which is fiercely opposed to charter schools, appears to have turned in enough signatures to qualify a referendum for the November ballot. Scheduled to take effect yesterday, the law is on hold until after the election.

The ongoing battle over charter schools is an enormous waste of time and resources. Delay of the law is a blow to students who could have attended new schools in the fall.

For more than a decade, Democrats and Republicans across the country have embraced charter schools because they give families options. Nationwide, nearly 750,000 students attend about 3,000 charter schools. Forty states and the District of Columbia allow them.

Charter schools are public schools with autonomy and accountability. They can design their own schedules and budgets and decide whom to hire and fire. Unlike regular public schools, they close when they are unsuccessful.

Since Minnesota opened the first charter school in 1992, there have been awful ones and phenomenal ones, and many in between. Washington is in a position to profit from the lessons other states have learned.

Many big urban districts, including New York and Chicago, are using charter schools as part of their overall efforts to better serve low-income and minority children. Unfortunately, the intense opposition to charters by many school boards here makes that possibility unlikely, even if the law stands.

It is time to put this issue into perspective. Charter schools are one tool. Alone, they cannot significantly boost statewide student achievement or close the achievement gap. But they can give some students who are not being well-served by traditional public schools a high-quality education. There is no good reason to deny them that.

The focus on charters is diverting attention from the real issue, which has much broader implications: When will state leaders muster the will to fully fund public education and boldly support what we know works to improve schools?