The Charter School Vote
Editor's Note: A condensed version of this article appeared in the October issue of Seattle's Child.
Washington is one of only nine states that have yet to embrace charter schools. But that could change come November. Initiative 1240 marks the fourth time voters will consider a ballot measure that would allow publicly funded, independent schools in our state.
Voters rejected the last charter school referendum with 58 percent against it in 2004. This time around, the measure calls for stricter rules of accountability and allows for slightly fewer charter schools overall.
While most states allow charter schools, they remain among the most contentious education reform issues nationwide. Neither side trusts the other’s research and conclusions. Data conflicts. For every success story touted by charter school advocates, there’s a story of failure from the opposing side.
One of the most oft-cited studies, out of Stanford University, found that nationwide only 17 percent of charter school students outperform their public school peers. But the study also showed that two important subgroups fare better in charters than in the traditional system: students in poverty and students who are English language learners.
The vote on I-1240 comes at a time when the state is in the grips of a budget crisis. Nationwide, Washington ranks a dismal 44th in state funding per student. Earlier this year, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the state was not meeting its constitutional duty to adequately fund basic education, and called on the Legislature to implement a new funding plan by 2018. In recent debates, both candidates for the governor’s race vowed to allocate an additional $1 billion for school funding.
But even with extra dollars, the educational challenges are daunting:
- Nearly half of the state’s students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and the achievement gap between those kids and their more well-off counterparts is staggering.
- In South Seattle, for example, only 45 percent of low-income students met the seventh grade math standard, compared to 77 percent of their more affluent peers.
- Among black students in South Seattle, the numbers are even worse: only one-third of 7th graders of color met the math standard.
- Statewide, almost 25 percent of students don’t graduate from high school, and the numbers are far higher among low-income and minority groups.
Frustrated with the pace of educational improvements, donors with deep pockets are funding the Yes on I-1240 campaign. Initiative supporters had raised $4.6 million by mid September, most of it from Bill Gates, Arkansas-based Alice Walton (whose fortune comes from Walmart), the Bezos family, entrepreneur Nick Hanauer, and other individuals. By comparison, the opposition to I-1240 had raised a meager $240,000, mainly from the Washington state teachers union and the Seattle union for non-teaching school employees.
Given the state’s gaping achievement gap, charter school supporters are calling on voters to approve I-1240, allowing, they say, for an option that could boost academic success. But opponents counter that the measure would divert scarce funding from existing public schools for a model that has not proven viable.
In this Seattle's Child interview, Lisa Macfarlane, Washington State Director of Democrats for Education Reform, and Melissa Westbrook, a long-time public education activist in Seattle, debate about the initiative.
Why is a charter school more likely to succeed than a traditional public school? Can you point to one or more successful charter schools that exemplify the difference?
PRO: Researchers at Stanford, Harvard and MIT confirm what thousands and thousands of parents already know: In states that have high-quality authorizing laws, and comprehensive laws prioritizing accountability and oversight, public charter schools outperform traditional public schools, especially in helping students who are low-income, urban residents, children of color, and English language learners.
In visiting a number of high-quality public charter schools in the KIPP, Rocketship, ASPIRE, and YES Prep networks, I saw schools that have cracked the code on how to put struggling students on a path to success. Because public charter schools have flexibility around staffing, budgets, length of school day, and curriculum, they do whatever it takes to individualize learning so children can succeed.
Washington has too many struggling students who are slipping through the cracks. The fact that we have a few outstanding innovative and break-through schools does not mean that we don’t need more options within the public school system. One size does not fit all students.
Does the current system of public schools allow for enough innovative, responsive changes to instruction to serve students? Can you point to one or more public schools that have made dramatic, successful changes within the current system?
CON: Washington has the 4th most-crowded classrooms in the nation, outdated textbooks and technology, a lack of enrichment programs and not enough teachers to give students the individual attention they need. We’ve cut $2.5 billion from education in the last three years alone, and we now spend less money per student than Mississippi when adjusted for regional costs. Before spending millions on I-1240’s charter schools that admit only a tiny fraction of students with no guarantee of improved performance, let’s do what the state Supreme Court told us to do: fund proven solutions to real problems — so all our children can succeed.
There are many examples of great public schools.
- About 8 years ago, the Everett School District had a dismal 53 percent graduation rate. With the addition of four graduation specialists, they have brought their graduation rates up to over 80 percent.
- The Tacoma School District created Lincoln Center within its Lincoln High School for at-risk students. They have a longer school day in addition to weekend classes. They beat the district average for GPA across all student backgrounds and statistically eliminated the achievement gap.
The Washington Supreme Court recently slammed the state for failing to adequately fund K-12 education. How would the passage of I-1240 help or hinder the state in meeting its financial obligation to the schools?
PRO: Passage of I-1240 doesn’t change the state’s constitutional obligation to make ample provision for the education of all children. Charter schools ARE public schools serving public school students. According to the Office of Financial Management’s fiscal impact statement, I-1240 will simply allow public charter schools as another enrollment option within the public school system.
If I thought for a minute that the passage of this modest charter school law would make it harder for the state to meet its financial obligations to public schools, I would not be an enthusiastic member of the coalition in support of I-1240. I have spent the last 16 years of my professional life fighting for the resources that our public schools need.
The League of Education Voters, an organization that I co- founded, filed an amicus brief in the McCleary case, and we applauded the ruling and are working hard with legislative leaders for systemic funding solutions. The League of Education Voters, an organization that I co- founded, filed an amicus brief in the McCleary case, and we applauded the ruling and are working hard with legislative leaders for systemic funding solutions.
CON: I-1240 doesn’t include any new money and doesn’t pay for itself — the new charter school bureaucracy alone will cost taxpayers $3 million. To fund these charter schools, I-1240 diverts money from existing public schools — up to $100 million a year. I-1240 funnels scarce tax dollars into schools that are unproven. To comply with the Washington Supreme Court, we must fund all schools.
Many groups opposed to I-1240 cite the lack of local oversight and participation as a top concern. If I-1240 passes, how can parents participate in the charter school process?
PRO: Charter schools are enormously popular with parents because of the results they are getting for children. The ultimate measure of parental participation is being able to choose the school that best fits your child’s needs.
Initiative 1240 specifically includes language to maximize parent participation and oversight:
- At least one member of the Washington charter school commission must be a parent of a Washington public school student;
- A charter school application must describe “opportunities and expectations for parent involvement,” must include “evidence of need and parent and community support for the proposed charter schools,” and must include “an organization chart that clearly presents the school's organizational structure, including lines of authority and reporting between the governing board, staff, any related bodies such as advisory bodies or parent and teacher councils;”
- The charter application review process must include an opportunity in a public forum for “parents, community members, local residents, and school district board members and staff, to learn about and provide input on each application;”
- Local school boards can become authorizers under I-1240; and
- The initiative requires that charter schools comply with an annual state performance report that requires, among other things, "a summary of feedback from parents and community members" and "an invitation to all parents and citizens to participate in school activities."
CON: I-1240 makes parental involvement very difficult. The Washington State PTA opposes I-1240 in part because the commission that oversees charters would be comprised of unaccountable political appointees, with only one member required to be a public school parent. Charters approved by the statewide commission would have the potential to bypass local oversight of how tax dollars are spent. And there’s no guarantee that a charter school’s governing board would include parents. Beside the state PTA, the initiative is also opposed by the Washington Association of School Administrators and the Washington State School Directors’ Association.
Many of those in favor of I-1240 say that charter schools can bring faster change for those students most at risk of failing in traditional public schools. If I-1240 doesn’t pass, what do you say to the parents of those at-risk students who want what’s best for their children now? Why shouldn’t parents have more choices in where they send their kids to school?
PRO: We support I-1240 precisely because we think that parents of struggling students deserve the same option that is currently available in 41 other states — the option to choose to send their child to a public charter school. Washington is the only state with an urban corridor that doesn’t allow public charter schools. Every state that surrounds us geographically and that we compete with economically has public charter schools. These public schools have been around for 20 years, and the reason President Obama and governors and mayors of all political persuasions support their expansion is because they get results.
While our traditional schools are working for many students, too many children are falling through the cracks and being left behind. The data shows that charter schools can serve these struggling kids exceptionally well — and these kids can’t afford to wait.
Furthermore, allowing public charter schools in Washington offers opportunities for systemic change—by demonstrating models that can work for different populations of students and by offering opportunities for partnerships with districts and traditional schools that can change the way we serve all our kids.
CON: There are no guarantees in I-1240 that charters would serve at-risk students. The benchmark Stanford University study of charters determined that only 17 percent do better and twice that number perform worse. Parents and children deserve the best education possible. The Washington Supreme Court determined that funding of local, neighborhood schools was insufficient. The Legislature must act in the next session, beginning January 2013. We need to fund proven solutions for all our kids.
Hawthorne Elementary in Columbia City and West Seattle Elementary in High Point are high-poverty public schools that have made dramatic gains by doing many of the things that successful charter schools do: longer school days, collaborative teaching, and high expectations for all students. Given the costs of opening new schools, charter or traditional, what does the charter route offer that the traditional public school route doesn’t?
PRO: Thanks to an infusion of federal school improvement dollars, Hawthorne and West Seattle Elementary are turning themselves around. Pockets of innovation encourage us, and we especially celebrate our high-poverty, high-achieving schools and districts, which outperform their demographics.
However, we need to do more. Our public school system works great for many students, but others struggling, and are not getting their needs met. These are the kids who later drop out of school, at great cost to taxpayers and our economy.
Public charter schools are not a silver bullet or a panacea, but they are another option — another tool in toolbox — to help struggling students succeed. In fact, the practices that make them so successful, like a culture of high expectations, a longer school day and year, and collaborative and data-driven teaching, are being adopted in traditional public schools.
Charter schools like KIPP, Aspire and Success Academy have used their staffing and budget flexibility to “crack the code” and help struggling students stay in school, graduate and go on to post-secondary education. These charter schools are succeeding where traditional public schools are failing.
CON: Hawthorne Elementary and West Seattle Elementary are two great examples of the progress we’re making despite the lack of adequate state funding. There are too many others to list here, but they are testimony to what can be accomplished when teachers, parents, administrators and student rally around a shared vision for academic excellence.
Charters will only drain money from existing schools and are a distraction our system doesn’t need. They have not shown great innovative strides after 20 years. Washington voters have rejected charters three times and our independence has allowed us to see that, over time, charters are not the model we should follow.
Some charter schools have great success, especially in serving at-risk students in urban areas. How would I-1240 affect this population given that it doesn’t specifically require charter schools to serve at-risk students?
PRO: This is not true. I-1240 requires that priority be given to schools serving students who are at-risk and who are struggling in traditional schools. The language could not be more specific: “Authorizers shall give preference to applications for charter schools that are designed to enroll and serve at-risk student populations.”
In addition, public charter school applicants must provide plans and timelines for student recruitment and enrollment, including targeted plans for recruiting at-risk students and outlining lottery procedures. Plus, the performance provisions within a charter contract must be based on a framework that clearly sets forth the academic and operational performance indicators, measures and metrics that will guide an authorizer's evaluations of a charter school. The performance framework requires the disaggregation of all student performance data by major student subgroups, including gender, race and ethnicity, poverty status, special education status, English language learner status, and highly capable status.
We agree with the premise of the question — that properly authorized public charter schools have had great success, especially in serving at-risk students. I-1240 brings the best of what works in these public charter schools nationwide to Washington state, as the initiative is modeled on the charter school laws in the states that are getting the best results.
CON: There’s nothing in I-1240 that guarantees charter schools would serve at-risk or struggling students. Both the NAACP and El Centro de la Raza oppose I-1240. Creating separate education systems is not the way to ensure equal education and opportunity for all our kids.
Without specific mandates in the initiative to serve those students, there are no guarantees of any charter schools to serve them.
What role, if any, will voters have at the end of the five-year term of the charter legislation?
PRO: I-1240 mandates strict oversight and accountability. After 20 years of charter school experience in 41 states, experts agree that a rigorous authorization process assures the highest quality schools.
Public charter schools are approved and overseen by either a local school board or a state commission, and are subject to annual performance reviews by the state board of education and the state charter commission to evaluate their success in improving student outcomes.
At the end of its five-year contract, a charter school can request a renewal of its charter, which triggers another application and round of public input. If there are any charter schools that are not performing well, they will be automatically shut down.
At the end of five years, the state board of education and the state charter school commission will recommend whether we should have more than 40 of these public charter schools. (We have about 2300 public schools in the state.) At that time the legislature will have the opportunity to decide whether to allow additional public charter schools.
CON: Even after five years, there is no sunset clause, even if charters are failing. Local voters would continue to have no recourse. This is NOT a pilot program that can have the plug pulled.
What is your best guess as to what the next two years will look like if I-1240 does or does not pass? What will be the focus of your efforts?
PRO: We believe that voters will approve I-1240 and allow up to 40 public charter schools in Washington state over a five-year period. Charter schools are independently-managed public schools operated by qualified non-profits. Charter schools are an extremely popular educational option in 41 other states.
We predict that our charter school law will be ranked one of the best in the country. Supporters of the initiative will focus on accountability and oversight for any charter schools approved in the first two years, and on a broader level, we will continue to advocate for policies that will accelerate student achievement.
Both Presidential candidates support the expansion of charter schools. Therefore we can expect federal dollars and policy to support the expansion of high-quality charter schools.
The press has already reported that several of the nation’s best charter management organizations are interested in Washington. We also expect there will be some of our teachers and principals interested in starting charter schools.
Those of us who have spent years fighting for needed resources and reforms for our public schools will continue to do so. Per-student funding levels matter for all public schools, including charter schools.
CON: All eyes are on the state Legislature, which must come up with a way to fund basic education to be in compliance with the Washington Supreme Court. We will continue to argue on behalf of our parents and kids to ensure we fulfill the promise to education contained in our state Constitution. We must focus on providing the best education for all our kids.
In Favor of Initiative 1240: Lisa Macfarlane currently serves as the Washington State Director of Democrats for Education Reform. She co-founded the League of Education Voters and LEV Foundation, and she sponsored two statewide education funding ballot initiatives. She helped lead the Simple Majority campaign and volunteered on Seattle’s last nine school levy campaigns. Macfarlane spent the first 15 years of her professional career working in the juvenile justice system. She has received multiple awards for her work on behalf of public education.
Against Initiative 1240: Melissa Westbrook is a long-time public education activist in Seattle. She has co-written the Seattle Schools Community Forum blog since 2006. She and her co writer, Charlie Mas, were named by Seattle Magazine as two of the most influential people in Seattle for 2011. She has been a PTA president and was awarded the Golden Acorn for volunteer service and served on the Seattle School Board’s Closure and Consolidation Committee. She is currently the Chair of the No On 1240 campaign.
More About This Story...
- Up to 40 charter schools can be opened over the first five years.
- Students are held to the same academic standards as in traditional public schools.
- Teachers have the same certification requirements as in traditional public schools. They can unionize within their individual charter schools, but cannot join forces with the teachers of other schools to negotiate their contracts.
- Charter school proposals that serve at-risk students or students from low-performing public schools are given priority.
- Parents or teachers can petition to turn an existing public school into a charter school.
- Charter schools must be operated by state approved nonprofits and governed by charter school boards.
- Two types of entities – called authorizers – evaluate charter applications and oversee approved schools: 1) a nine-member, government-appointed state commission or 2) local school boards approved by the state board of education.
- Charter school proposals are evaluated on a minimum of 32 application elements, ranging from mission and vision, to staffing and financial plans, to evidence of need and prior success.
- Charter school authorizers are required to submit annual academic and financial performance reports to the state board of education.
- After five years, the charter school commission and the state board of education evaluate the program and decide whether to recommend allowing additional schools.
What Are Charter Schools?
Charter schools are publicly funded, independently run schools that operate under a governing contract, or “charter.” Like traditional public schools, they are free and open to all students (admission is by lottery in the case of over-capacity), and receive public funding based on student enrollment. Unlike traditional public schools, charters are free from most state and local regulations, though they are required to administer standardized testing. This allows them the flexibility to set curriculum and budgets, hire and fire teachers and staff, and contract with other public or private entities for services. In return for their autonomy, charter schools are subject to periodic review by an authorizing agency that can renew or revoke the charter.