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EDITORIAL: Real choice entails better charter law
[January 31, 2013]

EDITORIAL: Real choice entails better charter law

Jan 31, 2013 (Wyoming Tribune-Eagle - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- School choice advocates rallied at the Herschler Building on Tuesday, saying their facilities represent major opportunities for state residents.

We beg to differ. While the WTE is a big supporter of choice n as long as it provides quality results n Wyoming never will have true education options until it improves its charter school law.

The weakness of those state statutes was emphasized again, as it is every year, in a report from the Center for Education Reform last month.

The group gave Wyoming's law a "D" grade, adding that it is the fifth-weakest of the nation's 43 state statutes. It also deducted three points from the Cowboy State's score because "the state has imposed a de facto cap (on the number of charters allowed) by not encouraging or working to improve (the) charter environment." This lack of effort on charter schools has been somewhat of a mystery to us as we have watched the Legislature tackle school accountability. No doubt, lawmakers should be demanding more from the public schools. Thus, measuring their performance n and requiring that they push for higher levels of success n makes perfect sense.

But that is only part of the formula. We believe, as do many other experts in the field of education, that competition can reform and lift the system faster than simply tweaking it. And that idea has, for the most part, been left out of the Wyoming discussion.

The fact is, charter schools, done right, can provide true competition. For example, it appears pupils at Cheyenne's new PODER Academy are enjoying big gains in test scores. If that continues, Laramie County School District 1 stakeholders are going to demand similar results across the entire system.

It is true that lawmakers are putting in a lot of work on accountability. But we would like to see them at least begin looking at the state's charter school law. It has at least two major problems: Approval process. Currently the only way a charter school can be sanctioned is through local districts. And they have disincentives for doing so: They fear competition (what if the charter does do better ) and a new charter pulls funds away from the current schools in the system.

Lawmakers should look at either providing for appeals to a neutral body n the State Board of Education is not that n or setting up a separate authorizer. The latter option is better: It would speed things up and provide a cleaner look at applications.

Lack of autonomy. Charters are supposed to be about a tradeoff: The schools get the freedom to operate as they see fit, and the district gets results. If the schools falter, they can be forced to close. This autonomy allows for the kind of innovations at the charters that can move the system forward.

Wyoming's law provides only limited autonomy: Charters must follow state and district rules. That cannot drive real change.

It is early in the general session, but education reformers like Rep. Matt Teeters, R-Lingle, and Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody, should put charter schools on their "to do" lists for interim study. If they truly are interested in lifting Wyoming's schools n and we know they are n they will seek to inject a dose of competition into the system by muscling up the state's charter school statutes.

___ (c)2013 Wyoming Tribune-Eagle (Cheyenne, Wyo.) Visit Wyoming Tribune-Eagle (Cheyenne, Wyo.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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