Opinion Extra

Letts: Two separate standards for charter schools

In Northeast Richland, we've recently seen two charter school proposals. Both were certified by the state Department of Education as having met the provisions of the state Charter School Act. But there's a big difference in the way the proposals were treated by the Richland 2 school board.

One was the Richland 2 Charter High, a school for about 80 students determined to have discipline problems. On July 21, the school board approved the charter high school based on the fact that it passed and met the state's standards for certification. One school board member put it this way during the discussion: "In light of the fact that the Department of Education has said this charter school has met the provisions of the Charter School Act, it would be silly for (Richland School District 2) not to."

Then, on July 28, something happened I'll never understand. The same school board voted to reject a proposed year-round charter school for K-5 students, even though it was certified to be in compliance with every provision of the Charter School Act. (The Department of Education also determined that the school, Hope Charter School, would have no adverse impact on the surrounding schools.)

I am a member of the group of citizens and education and business leaders who proposed the charter school - and who conducted the comprehensive educational improvement analysis to ensure the school's rigorous curricula would provide a world-class educational opportunity while providing flexibility.

That's what charter schools are about. They give another option to families who want an alternative but prefer to stick with public schools. They bring much-needed competition, which strengthens both charter schools and traditional schools; just as competition between two businesses leads both to improve, competition among schools provides an important incentive for all of them to set their sights higher. That's why the importance of charter schools is one of very few issues on which both presidential candidates agreed last November.

It's understandable that the Richland 2 board and administration wanted the charter high school, which would send at-risk students to a new school. The charter high school, although technically not part of Richland 2, will even rent building space from the district for $500 a year.

What's not understandable is that my local school district (for which I have been honored for my volunteer efforts) is holding the two schools to entirely different standards.

But that's exactly what is happening. For example, the Hope Charter School Committee submitted more than 250 petitions of support from Richland 2 parents; the charter high school committee submitted none. Yet one reason the board gave for rejecting the Hope Charter School petition is that "The application does not contain evidence that an adequate number of parents, teachers, pupils, or any combination of them support the formation of the charter school."

Let me repeat: Hope Charter School met the rigorous standards set by the Department of Education. Yet even after approving the charter high school because it met those standards, the school board rejected the proposed K-12 school.

Actually, I had suspected the school board wasn't prepared to view our proposal with an objective eye. In an article in The State, one board member had intimated, even before reviewing the details, that she would oppose the school.

On Aug. 24, the Hope Charter School planning committee filed an appeal in administrative law court challenging Richland 2's decision. While we hate that it has come to this, it's clear that Hope Charter School was held to a different standard than the charter school that will divert at-risk students out of Richland 2.

It doesn't have to be this way. Richland 2 could revisit the issue, comply with the spirit of the Charter School Act and approve Hope Charter School, as the state Department of Education suggested. It's never too late to do the right thing.