Voters Weigh Pros, Cons of Charter Schools in Battleground Washington
By GREGORY ROBERTS, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Reporter
To seize the high ground in the debate over charter schools, pro-charter forces lay claim to the South Bronx. It's in that poverty-stricken New York City neighborhood that the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) opened one of the first charter schools in its nationwide network, in 1995.
The schools—open from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, plus half a day on Saturday and three weeks in the summer—focus on poor and minority middle-schoolers. And the KIPP Academy New York ranks as a charter school star: in 02-03, its students scored well above the state average in English, math, and science.
The anti-charter side might zero in on the Florida Panhandle. In the town of Gonzalez, prosecutors said this spring, operators of the Escambia Charter School taught students for an hour a day four days of the week, and hired them out to work on state road projects the rest of the time.
But Washington is the battleground state for the charter school movement this year. And voters here, poised to decide Tuesday whether to allow the state's first charter schools, have a lot of rhetoric to sift through. For every shining example of charter school success, such as the Vaughn Street School in Los Angeles or the W.E.B. DuBois Academy in Cincinnati, opponents can counter with exhibits of their own, such as the August financial collapse of the 60-school California Charter Academy that left thousands of students in the lurch. Even the statistical evidence is muddied, with each side touting test scores to support its position.
And while there is an ideological cast to the debate—charter schools are a favored cause of many high-profile free-marketeers, while labor unions provide much of the oomph for the opposition—the picture there, too, is fuzzy. The national political platforms of both the Democratic and Republican parties endorse charter schools.
Since the nation's first charter school opened in Minnesota in 1992, 3,000 more have followed, and they now enroll nearly 750,000 students. Idaho was the first state neighboring Washington to approve charter schools, but its 1998 law is regarded as relatively restrictive by charter school supporters, and just 13 of the schools operate there. Oregon approved charters in 1999, and under its more liberal law, 56 charter schools now enroll 6,000 students.
Six other Oregon charter schools have come and gone. Two were shut down in midstream—one for health and safety concerns, another for financial shortcomings—while four were denied renewal of their charters, for reasons ranging from failure to meet the 25-student enrollment threshold to financial weakness to an inability to satisfy the local school board that the school could meet its educational goals.
Portland School Board members support charter schools as part of a spectrum of educational options, but concede the track record is mixed. "Just as at other schools in our district, some have had greater success than others," said board member Julia Brim-Edwards.
Voters here will wade into the debate on Election Day, when they decide whether to pass or flunk Referendum 55. If passed, the measure will add Washington to the 40 states where charter schools already are legal.
Charter schools were approved by the Legislature and governor last spring, but the law was suspended when a petition drive, spearheaded by the state teachers' union, collected enough signatures to force the referendum. It's the third ballot-box test: Two initiatives seeking to establish charter schools were rejected, in 1996 and 2000. If R-55 is approved, the first charter schools could open as early as April.
Those who have said they'd like to apply include a couple who run a Montessori preschool in Enumclaw and want to expand to grades K-3; another couple who operate a home-school support program in Mount Vernon and wish to offer a tradition-based schoolhouse education to K-12 students; a parents' group in Lewis County that hoped to keep Packwood Elementary School open despite school board plans to close it; and the principal of a private K-8 school in Seattle seeking to add a charter high school.
Charter schools operate under a contract or "charter" with local school boards or state officials. They are exempted from many of the rules and restrictions that apply to other public schools. Per-student state funding, about $5,500 a year, would follow kids who attend.
While for-profit companies such as Edison Schools Inc. operate charter schools in many states, the Washington law was drafted to exclude them. Non-profit groups from out of state could apply, and KIPP, for one, is interested.
"We're committed to doing what it takes to open a charter school in Washington state because we think the need exists," KIPP spokesman Steve Mancini said. "There's clearly an achievement gap in public education across the nation and in Washington state, and we have a record of turning underachievers into high achievers."
Donald Fisher of San Francisco, the founder of the Gap clothing stores, is a major contributor to KIPP, and he's also donated more than $900,000 to the $3.8 million campaign to approve R-55. Microsoft Corp. co-founder and chairman Bill Gates has chipped in $1 million, as has John Walton of Bentonville, Ark., a Wal-Mart heir and nationwide supporter of the school-choice movement.
The Washington Education Association, the teachers union, has contributed $350,000 to the effort to reject the law. Its parent group, the National Education Association, has put in $500,000, and labor interests, including the American Federation of Teachers and local in-state teachers' groups, have accounted for most of the $1.3 million on the "no" side.
The WEA's critics say the union's opposition is simply a matter of self-interest. Because charter school teachers wouldn't have to join the WEA local, the union wouldn't collect dues from them and would lose clout, they say.
WEA President Charles Hasse said in June: "We've seen the performance record (since 2000) from other states, and it's lackluster. The best you can say is charter schools do as well or almost as well as regular public schools when it comes to student test scores."
When Hasse said that, the statistical debate revolved around studies of performance in individual states, and each side could find evidence to support its position. But in August, the statistical landscape shifted dramatically.
Mining the data from the federal government's 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress ("the nation's report card"), the national teachers union released a study showing fourth-graders in charter schools lagging behind their mainstream public-school counterparts in nearly every category of race, ethnicity, poverty, and community size. The AFT also claimed that the data was suppressed by the Bush administration, which sets aside $200 million a year in grants to charter schools and included charters as an option for the mandatory restructuring of public schools that fail to meet the standards of the federal No Child Left Behind law.
The NAEP numbers clearly put charter school advocates on the defensive. They argued the NAEP sample included too few schools. They said it took a snapshot in time that didn't reflect the progress of students in charter schools, many of which target children on the low end of the racial achievement gap.
Jim Spady, president of the Washington Charter School Resource Center, said the NAEP results were no surprise. Students in charter schools tend to be kids who struggle in the classroom, he said, which is why their parents switched them from traditional schools in the first place.
Spady said it's unfair to force any children to attend a substandard public school just because their families can't afford to pay private-school tuition or move to a blue-chip school district. Charter schools, he said, can offer a high-quality alternative at no extra cost.
At a Seattle School Board forum in January, Spady also argued that charter schools inject healthy competition into public education, spurring improvements in mainstream schools much as imports of Toyotas and Nissans prompted Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors to upgrade.
The School Board subsequently voted to oppose the charter school bill, and Spady has acknowledged that the board's position makes it unlikely any new charter school would open in Seattle, should R-55 win approval Tuesday.
One flaw with charter schools, critics say, is that they spend public money but don't have to answer directly to the public's elected representatives, the local school board. But Spady says the Washington law sets the strictest standard of accountability in the nation: It bars renewal of a school's five-year charter if its students don't match the performance of their mainstream peers on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning. "It guarantees that there will be no below-average charter schools," he said.
But at a charter school conference hosted by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in September, Hasse said that's hardly a desirable remedy. "A school is a community," he said. Nor has that kind of penalty proved easy to apply in other states, he said.
By rights, charter schools ought to outperform traditional schools on average because charter schools typically are much smaller, but "they have not lived up to their promise," Hasse said. They are hampered by high teacher turnover and high administrative costs, he said.
A major criticism by Hasse and others is that charter schools will drain sorely needed money from regular public schools, on the order of $75.5 million statewide over the next four years, based on projections by the state Office of Financial Management. Most of that amount is accounted for by the state per-pupil allotment of about $5,500 a year following children when they transfer from mainstream schools to charters, but charter school opponents say that's a legitimate loss calculation because schools can't realize an equivalent savings from the transfers.
House Education Committee Chairman Dave Quall, D-Mount Vernon, who supports the charter law, said in the conference that schools gain and lose per-pupil funds every year as student populations fluctuate, and that the effect of larger demographic trends dwarfs the effect of charter school transfers.
As it is, Quall said, the state's Running Start program, which allows high-school students to earn credit at community colleges, effectively transfers $20 million a year from public school districts to the colleges. "Is that a bad thing?" he said. "I don't think so."
OFM estimates the charter school bill would add $8.4 million to overall state spending over the next four years: $7.4 million in per-pupil allocations because the schools would attract some private-school and home-schooled students not currently covered in the state budget, and $1 million in new administrative costs incurred by state agencies.
Charter school supporters say money flowing to the state from federal charter school grants would offset much of the total.
Seattle School Board member Darlene Flynn, who is African American, said at the conference that she took a long look at charter schools as a tool to close the achievement gap. But she rejected them as a solution, she said, because most poor and minority students will attend traditional public schools in any case. Policy-makers should concentrate on the known ingredients for success in any school, she said: reasonable class sizes, well-paid and -prepared teachers, strong leadership. "The insertion of charter schools by the state Legislature becomes a distraction," she said.
But Hispanic community activist Victoria Clayton said dismal test scores and staggering dropout rates show the public school system has failed minority students. "It's not working," she said. "Charter schools will really help the public education system, not make it weaker."
We answer some common questions about Referendum 55 and charter schools:
Q: What are we voting on with Referendum 55?
A: To uphold ("approve") or overturn ("reject") a bill passed this spring by the Legislature and signed by the governor that legalizes charter schools in Washington state. Charter schools currently are legal in 40 other states and the District of Columbia.
Q: Is this the same as the charter school initiatives voted down in 1996 and 2000?
A: Not exactly. Those were citizen initiatives to authorize charter schools by direct popular vote, as allowed by the state constitution. This is a referendum on a bill already approved, a procedure authorized by a related part of the constitution and triggered by a similar means: the collection of enough voters' signatures to put it on the ballot.
Q: What is a charter school?
A. It's a public school that operates under a contract, or charter, between the people who are to run the school and the public agency or official authorized to issue the charter. Local school boards and the state superintendent of public instruction can issue a charter. The charter school gets tax money like other public schools, although new charter schools would get local levy money only from levies approved after the school opens.
Q: What's in the charter?
A: "The terms and conditions for the management, operation, and educational program of the charter school," according to the law. That must include how the school will be governed, its mission, its proposed curriculum, and documentation of its financial viability.
Q: How is a charter school different from a regular public school?
A: It can operate outside the regular administrative structure of the local school district and school board, free of many state regulations. That means the operators can hire whom they want as principal or as teachers, can choose curriculums and set up a schedule for the school day and year, for example, independently of the district administration and school board.
Q: Who gets a charter?
A: Under the proposed Washington law, only a non-profit with no religious affiliation can receive a charter; the organization may be an existing one, or it may be formed to get a charter. For new charter schools, the organization applies first to the local school board; if the board rejects the application, the organization may appeal to the state superintendent of public instruction.
Q: What about union contracts between school districts and teachers?
A: Teachers at a new charter school can't join the district-wide union for the first five years of the school's operation. At that point, they can elect to join. They can form their own collective bargaining unit in the first five years, but it will be limited to that one school.
Q: Do charter school teachers have to be certificated by the state?
A: Generally speaking, yes.
Q: Can the school pick and choose its students?
A: No. Enrollment may be limited only on the basis of age group or grade level. If more students apply than the school has space for, it must fill the slots through a lottery (except that siblings of already-enrolled students get preference). Conversion charter schools must guarantee slots to any students enrolled in the school before its conversion.
Q: Can a charter school charge tuition?
Q: Are there any limits on the number of charter schools?
A: Yes. The law limits the number of new charter schools to 45: five in each of the first three years the law is in effect, and 10 in each of the next three. There's no limit to the number of conversion charter schools.
P-I reporter Gregory Roberts can be reached at 206-448-8022 or
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Read the companion article about M.I.T.C.H. charter school in Oregon.
Read the companion article about SEI Academy in Oregon.
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