Three times, Washington voters have said no to charter schools. Asked to consider bringing the independent, publicly funded education model to the Evergreen State, voters turned down ballot measures in 1996, 2000 and 2004.
But supporters say Washington is ready now to join the 41 other states that offer families the charter choice. Voters will have a say, again, when they rule on Initiative 1240 on the Nov. 6 ballot.
“Every family ought to have access to at least one good school,” says education entrepreneur and I-1240 backer Tom Vander Ark, who was superintendent of Federal Way Public Schools for five years in the 1990s.
But opponents contend that charters would damage the public school system. They say charters will siphon badly needed funding into a limited number of schools – up to 40 statewide over five years.
“We already have about 2,300 schools that are underfunded. Why would we want 2,340? It doesn’t make any sense,” says Pam Kruse, a sixth-grade teacher in the Franklin Pierce School District who’s also president of her local union.
Vander Ark says charters are one tool that can be used to reverse generations of poverty and schools that haven’t met the needs of poor children. He directed national education initiatives for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation before launching his own enterprises.
But while charters offer one way, it’s not necessarily the easy way. The New York Times reported that Vander Ark drew criticism last year – criticism he rebuffed in a letter to the Times – after pulling out of a couple of charter school launches in the New York City area.
“By itself, it doesn’t make for a great school,” Vander Ark said of the charter label. “It’s an opportunity to run and sustain a great school.”
Tacoma mom and I-1240 opponent Jennifer Boutell agrees with that assessment.
“A charter school does not equal an innovative school,” says Boutell, statewide field director for People for Our Public Schools, a group working to defeat the initiative. “A charter school is not a curriculum. A charter school is not a particular teaching method, or even an extended school day. A charter school is an ownership model.”
She believes the charter concept wrests ownership of public schools from taxpayers for the benefit of small numbers of students. And she says that’s wrong.
Charters are publicly funded, tuition-free schools that permit significant decisions to be made at a school level, rather than by a school district or state officials.
An analysis of I-1240 by the state Office of Financial Management says passage could shift costs from local districts to charter schools. OFM does not place a dollar figure on that shift, citing too many unknowns. Charters might also draw students who currently attend private schools back to the public system, and that could increase overall education costs, OFM says.
Its analysis does estimate that it will cost the state just more than $3 million over five years to implement I-1240, including operation of a new state charter schools commission.
Shannon Campion, a Seattle mom and director of initiative-backer Washington Stand for Children, says the idea that charters drain money from public education is wrong.
“These are public schools,” she says. “They are serving public school students within the public system.
“What makes charter schools different is that they are free from certain state regulations. They can set curriculum and budgets at the school level. They can hire and fire staff to make sure their team is aligned with the mission of their school.”
Tailoring a school to its kids is one reason charters have been successful in serving struggling students in other states, she says.
But Kruse says Washington school districts are already creating innovative schools, so charters aren’t needed.
“Everything they ask for in the initiative, we can already do,” she says.
“Our members know what we need to do to improve our schools,” adds Mary Lindquist, president of the state teachers union, the Washington Education Association. “We just don’t have the resources to do it.”
Rachel Johnson, a teacher at Glacier View Junior High School in Puyallup, knows she’s in the minority among public school teachers supporting I-1240.
Johnson previously taught in Puyallup’s alternative high school, where many students struggle. She believes charters offer one way to “help kids on the front end,” before they fail.
She says her views on charters were influenced by a visit to a charter high school in Corbett, Ore. – a school recognized for excellence by U.S. News & World Report.
Corbett teachers, Johnson said, were “energized by their work. They have the flexibility to be responsive to student needs.”
School boards from Tacoma to Eatonville have voiced their collective opposition to I-1240.
Tacoma School Board President Catherine Ushka said she objects to the appointed state commission, which could do an end-run around elected local school boards.
She believes school districts are already making changes to ensure that parents have choices and schools improve. She points to Tacoma’s designation this year as an “innovative school district” by the state.
“Part of what we are working toward is making sure there are options in all parts of the city, and that they’re accessible,” Ushka says. “I think we are capable of ensuring equity without dismantling the public system.”
Boutell is likewise skeptical of provisions in I-1240 that permit charter authorization to come from either a local school board or the state commission. She says the requirement that commissioners have “a commitment to charter schooling” is “a little bit like the fox guarding the henhouse.”
Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, says it’s common in other states to have alternatives to local school boards serve as charter authorizers.
In some states, the alternative power rests with a state university. In others, it’s given to big-city mayors.
“We found that there is no one, right way,” Lake said. “Local school boards have a role, if they want to participate.”
In states where charters have operated for years, she says, school districts are starting to see charters as part of a “portfolio” of school options, along with traditional and magnet schools. She said charter authorizers can ensure that schools have “strict accountability requirements that most public schools don’t have.”
Chief among them: closure for nonperformance.
FOR AND AGAINST
Nationally, charters have been embraced by both liberals and conservatives at various times. Liberals are attracted by their potential to effect social change, while conservatives cherish parental choice.
Both President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney support charter schools.
But in Washington state, the split has been more politically divisive. Republican governor candidate Rob McKenna favors charter schools, while Democrat Jay Inslee does not. Neither does Randy Dorn, state superintendent of public instruction.
State organizations supporting I-1240 include Stand for Children, Democrats for Education Reform, the League of Education Voters and many business groups.
The initiative’s chief benefactor is Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, who has invested more than $3 million in the campaign.
Gates’ foundation has supported charters. In a 2010 speech to the National Charter Schools Conference, Gates said he believes charter schools are important because “they are the only schools that have the full opportunity to innovate.”
All told, the Yes on 1240 campaign has more than $9 million and has spent more than $7 million, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission.
The size of contributions working to defeat I-1240 pales in comparison: a total of about $350,000. But opponents say what they lack in dollars, they make up for in numbers of supporters.
The state PTA opposes I-1240, even though it previously endorsed the concept of charters. PTA officials say they dislike the format of the initiative’s state commission.
Two groups, People for Our Public Schools and No on 1240, oppose the initiative. PDC records show People for Our Public Schools has raised more than $330,000, with $150,000 of it coming from the WEA. The No on 1240 campaign has raised more than $16,000, mostly from small individual donors.
Both supporters and opponents of charters cite academic studies that support their views.
One of the most extensive, and most referenced, came from Stanford University in 2009. It compared charter students in 15 states and the District of Columbia with demographic “twins” in traditional public schools. Opponents quote the study’s finding that only 17 percent of the charter kids improved their test scores above what was seen in traditional schools. Some 37 percent of charter kids were below. About 46 percent of charter kids had results that were statistically the same.
A 2010 study of 32 charter schools published by the U.S. Department of Education also showed mixed results on test scores. But the study did say that charters serving low-income and struggling students had statistically positive effects on math scores, while those serving more affluent high achievers had negative effects. The study also said charter parents and students were more satisfied with their schools.
Todd Ziebarth, a vice president with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, has compared I-1240 with a model law drafted by his group, and to best practices around the country. He believes I-1240 could move Washington state to the head of the class in the world of charters.
He says how people feel about charters depends on whether they believe public education is in crisis.
“It’s not the option for everybody,” he says. “But it can be part of the solution.”
That’s also the belief of Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland, who says anything that can help education is good for the city.
“There is no need to ration excellence,” Strickland says. “It doesn’t have to be either-or. Is it the answer to all our problems? Probably not. But why limit ourselves?”