As Washington voters prepare to vote on charter schools again, advocates in Oregon wonder why their neighbors to the north are taking so long to see the merits of charters.
“Everybody in Oregon thinks Washington is a hopeless backwater,” says Rob Kremer, the state’s Republican Party treasurer. As a lobbyist, he helped shepherd Oregon’s charter school law through the Legislature in the 1990s.
But opponents in Washington say charters are yesterday’s answer to today’s complicated educational issues.
Tacoma School Board member Karen Vialle thinks Washingtonians who have been cautious on the charter issue have acted wisely. Approving charter schools now because everybody’s doing it, she says, “is a simplistic answer to a complex problem.”
If Washington Initiative 1240 passes, it would establish a charter school system that’s significantly different from Oregon’s.
While charters are still a contentious issue in Washington, parents around the nation have embraced them. Between 1999 and 2009, the number of students enrolled in public charter schools more than quadrupled, to 1.6 million, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Since Oregon’s first charter school opened in 1999, the number of charters in the state has steadily expanded and they now enroll about 4 percent of the state’s public school kids. Last year, there were 115 charter schools in Oregon; this year, there are 123.
“Charter schools have wiggled their way into the mainstream,” Kremer says. “I think charters are part of the fabric of public education in this country. A state that doesn’t have charters is threadbare.”
Some of the strongest critics of charters across the country have been teachers unions. Most charter teachers aren’t unionized, although there are exceptions. Oregon Education Association President Gail Rasmussen points to one example in the rural southern Oregon community of Prospect.
But like union officials in Washington, one of her biggest complaints about charters is that they dilute scarce education dollars by spreading them over more schools.
“We should be sure to invest every education dollar in a way that benefits every student,” Rasmussen says. “We should be fully funding schools so that all students are being helped.”
Dan Goldman, an administrator in the Tigard-Tualatin School District near Portland, says charters are the educational equivalent of secession.
“If people feel that their local school district is not working, they have an option,” he says. “Every district has a school board. People need to come and demand more from their school board. And the school board needs to hold the administration accountable.”
And while charter boosters say their small schools have been laboratories for innovation, Rasmussen argues they’ve had mixed results on student achievement.
The Oregon Department of Education expects charter growth to continue, despite the challenges such schools face.
One of the biggest is money.
Under a formula that Kremer acknowledges was a political compromise, Oregon charters receive lower per-pupil funding from the state than traditional public schools. Most charters offering kindergarten through eighth grade get 80 percent of basic state funding that goes to traditional schools, and high schools get 95 percent. The remainder goes to the sponsoring school district, which is responsible for providing services such as special education to the charter school.
Washington’s I-1240, by contrast, says that charter schools would “receive funding based on student enrollment just like existing public schools.” It also says entities that authorize charter schools, such as local school districts, may not retain more than 4 percent of a charter’s annual funding to pay for administrative oversight.
While Oregon charters can negotiate with their sponsoring district for higher funding, most are unsuccessful, Oregon charter advocates say. Many charter schools apply for grants or do fundraising to make up the difference. Most make do with less.
Charter operators say it’s worth it. If they’re proved wrong, they say, the solution is simple: Parents will stop sending their kids, and the charter will close.
At least 34 Oregon charters have closed over the years, many due to financial instability. Others came to an end because their sponsoring school districts opted not to renew their contracts. Still others have been absorbed into district programs.
“Charter schools have the freedom to do things the right way,” says Don Crawford, executive director for Arthur Academy, which operates six Oregon charters. “And they also have the freedom to fail.”
Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635 firstname.lastname@example.org