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Dec. 13, 2019

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In Our View: Study gives charter schools vital validation

The Columbian
Published: January 22, 2019, 6:03am

At least one early assessment indicates that Washington’s fledgling charter school system is having the intended effect: Improving student outcomes.

A report issued recently by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found, for example, that English language learners enrolled in charter schools gained the equivalent of 83 more days of instruction in both reading and math when compared with comparable students in traditional public schools. Overall, the scores of charter school students on standardized tests grew at similar rates to students in other schools.

The findings are significant. In 2012, Washington voters approved Initiative 1240 with 50.3 percent of the vote (52.3 percent of Clark County voters were in favor), allowing for the establishment of charter schools in the state. Charter schools are public schools funded by taxpayers but overseen by independent boards; this year there are 12 operating in Washington, but none in Clark County. Critics complain that charter schools siphon money from traditional public schools but have no oversight from taxpayers.

The schools faced legal challenges that resulted in some fancy footwork by legislators, who opted to use lottery money to fund charters and replace that money in the general fund. In October, the state Supreme Court ruled that plan constitutional; ideally, that will be the end of the legal wrangling and opponents will allow charter schools to blossom.

Although no charters exist yet in Clark County, the future of the system bears watching in this part of the state. Administrators at both charters and traditional schools can learn from what works well and what does not and apply those lessons to their own educational plans.

Thus far, much seems to be working, although the Stanford study has some limitations. One is the short history of charter schools in Washington, with the research looking at 2014-15 through 2016-17. Another is that studies are not foolproof; other research may find different results. And yet another is that the research can tell us what is happening, but it will take years to figure out why. As Macke Raymond, director of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, told The Seattle Times, “Nothing in the data that we crunch gives us any understanding of what is actually happening inside the schools.”

But the results of the Stanford study are encouraging. Researchers found that black students in the charter schools saw similar growth in reading and math to white students in traditional schools, while black students in traditional schools on average fell behind their peers. That would meet one of the goals of Washington’s charter school system, which was intentionally designed to provide alternatives for low-income areas and minority populations.

Importantly, another provision of the law is that poor-performing charter schools can be closed by the state. As the system grows and becomes more entrenched, it will be essential to demand that kind of accountability from each of the schools, and continuing assessments such as the one from Stanford will be beneficial in that regard.

Washington’s charter school system has been approved by voters and by the courts, and now it is proving itself in the classroom. The important thing moving forward will be steady improvement and a focus on student outcomes rather than courtroom battles. In the long run, we hope, charter schools will prove to be a worthy addition to the state’s public school system.