As Clark County prepares to welcome its first state-approved charter school, it is important to focus on the facts of Washington’s charter system rather than the hyperbole.
Charter schools were approved in 2012 through Initiative 1240, which passed with 50.3 percent of the statewide vote (52.3 percent of Clark County voters were in favor). At the time, The Columbian editorially supported the measure, stating that it would “give priority to charter schools that would serve at-risk students and communities. … This wouldn’t be a case of parents in, say, Mercer Island deciding they have a bone to pick with their local school and deciding to start their own.”
The Editorial Board also noted that charter schools would be subject to annual performance reviews and could be closed if they were not fulfilling their mission.
While the measure allowed for up to 40 charter schools in the following five years, a decade later fewer than 20 have opened throughout the state. As The Columbian reported this week, Rooted School Vancouver is scheduled to open its doors to ninth-graders in the fall in the Orchards area — the region’s first charter school.
Despite this small footprint on the education system, charter schools remain controversial. Proponents applaud the idea that charters give parents additional options for their children. Critics note that the schools draw taxpayer money away from public schools without the oversight of an elected school board.
While both arguments have merit, the charter school system remains an alternative that warrants consideration. The small size of the schools — and the lack of bureaucracy — allows for flexibility in curriculum that can effectively adjust to the needs of individual students.
In 2019, a report from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes quantified some encouraging details about charter schools in Washington. For example, the study found 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.
Researchers also found that Black students in 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.
Of course, that study was prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has upended education. And Washington’s charter system still is so new that firm conclusions cannot be drawn; continued assessments will be essential, and state officials should be quick to close schools that are shown to be falling short of their mission.
Founders of the Rooted School — which has outlets in Indianapolis and New Orleans — say they will strive to attract a diverse student population and that their curriculum focuses on project-based learning and internships for students. “The school mission is simple: to provide our students personal pathways to financial freedom,” founder Jonathan Johnson told The Columbian.
But the most important aspect, as with all charter schools, is that it presents a free, accessible public-school alternative. Traditional schools are not optimal for all students, and calls for more choices are increasing among politicians and parents across the nation.
With proper oversight, charter schools can enhance those choices.