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News / Northwest

10 years in, here’s what to know about WA charter schools

By Dahlia Bazzaz, The Seattle Times
Published: March 24, 2024, 6:05am

In the days after a story about challenges brewing at Why Not You Academy charter school, in Des Moines, readers sent many questions to Education Lab. In the story, dozens of former staff members had come forward to demand accountability for what they say was a harmful workplace and educational environment. Readers wanted to know more about how charter schools work and how they are held accountable.

Here’s what to know about the state’s relatively young (and hotly contested) charter school sector.

  • What makes charter schools different from traditional public schools?

In general, charter public schools have a few distinctions. Instead of a locally elected school board, these schools typically have a board of directors that oversees their day-to-day operations, much like a nonprofit. And in almost all cases, the schools do not have unionized teaching staff.

But just like public schools, they are free and publicly funded. Because they are intended to be small in most cases, admissions can be based on a lottery system. Many charters say their focus is to address racial gaps in achievement.

  • What is the history of charter schools in Washington?

It’s a short but dramatic history. Voters rejected referendums to legalize charters three times. Finally, in 2012, a fourth referendum was narrowly approved. The first charter school opened two years later. A legal battle soon began.

In 2015, the state Supreme Court ruled the schools’ funding mechanism was unconstitutional.

Lawmakers then passed a law that would allow schools to be funded through lottery revenue rather than through taxes. Charter school opponents contested the legality of this funding again. In 2018, the state Supreme Court ruled that lottery funds were an acceptable funding source.

Today, 18 of these publicly funded, privately run schools operate statewide. They enroll more than 4,800 students across the state — less 0.5% of the total public school population.

  • What are the arguments for and against charters?

Proponents of charter schools argue the schools are more responsive to the needs of parents because their financial stability depends on enrollment. (The same could also be said for traditional public schools.) The other argument is the schools are more nimble and experimental than their traditional counterparts because they typically aren’t unionized and their governing boards aren’t elected by voters.

For example, a science-driven charter school may have a governing board that’s made up almost entirely of engineers or biologists. Or, a school may extend its hours for tutoring without having to negotiate those changes with its employees.

But detractors say these adjustments are a step toward privatizing public education. Because they lack a locally elected school board, charters are less accountable to parents, they argue.

“Parents sign away their rights … Who are you going to complain to?” said Glenn Jenkins, who serves on the board of directors for the Washington Education Association, the statewide teachers union, which has for years led the resistance against charter schools here.

  • Who supports charter schools?

There isn’t a simple answer. Republicans are more likely to favor them, and charters were a major priority under the Trump administration. But plenty of Democrats also support them, though polls point to a racial divide. Here and across the nation, charters predominantly serve communities of color that are more likely to lean left. Black Democrats are more likely to view the schools favorably compared with white Democrats.

Proponents of charters say they’re seeing more political support for these schools with every year that passes. More lawmakers this year were showing support for the idea that charter schools should receive funding on-par with traditional public schools, said Mitch Price, senior policy adviser at WA Charters, an organization that advocates for the sector.

  • Who is in charge of overseeing charter schools in Washington?

Three main bodies oversee charter schools. The first is the school’s own governing board. The Washington State Charter School Commission, a board of appointed members, is responsible for authorizing the school’s applications, investigating complaints and ensuring schools comply with the law. For some of its duties, the commission works in tandem with the state education department, the third agency that oversees charters. That department, known as the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), holds the keys to the coffers for all public schools. Under the law, school districts can also serve the same role as the Commission and authorize charter schools in their area. Two of the state’s 18 charter schools report to the Spokane school district.

An example of how this works: Parents and staff from Why Not You Academy filed complaints directly with the charter commission about safety issues, a lack of special education services and problems with leadership. The commission investigated these claims at the school level, and worked with OSPI in some cases.

The commission has recently decided it will place the school under a corrective action plan for low enrollment. Under the charter school law, schools must maintain enough enrollment to be financially viable. Failure to do so could result in state officials shutting the school down.

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Is it true that charter schools receive less funding than traditional public schools? If so, how much is the gap?

Charter school money comes from state lottery revenue. They receive the same amount per student in state funding as other schools, but they do not have access to the extra funding that comes from local property tax revenues. Local property tax revenues amount to either $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value, or $2,500 per student, whichever is less.

Advocates have argued this constitutes a funding gap. They have repeatedly tried, unsuccessfully, to pass legislation that would give the schools money equal to the amount traditional public schools receive from local taxes. This year, however, a few charters got an additional $1,500 per student in the latest state budget.

  • Why does Washington have so few charter schools compared with other states?

The charter school law here is among the strictest in the country. And many supporters say that’s partially a good thing.

States that legalized charter schools early on served as an example for Washington’s own law. In what he called the “1.0” era of charter schools, Price said some states let “a thousand flowers bloom” — allowing the sector to explode — and then had to close many of those schools for poor performance. Or they authorized for-profit schools, like in Pennsylvania and Michigan.

Washington represents the “2.0” era, where states make charter school founders submit to an extensive application process and accountability framework, Price said. The sector is also small, just 18 schools, and not allowed to grow unless lawmakers change the existing law.

  • How do outcomes in charter schools compare with traditional public schools?

Existing research shows it depends on the student and the charter school.

Black and Latino charter pupils show more growth in reading and math compared with their peers in traditional public schools, according to a large study from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University. Among Native, multiracial, and white students, the gains were equivalent in reading but weaker in math compared with regular schools. On average, students with disabilities had significantly weaker growth in math and reading. Asian students were about equivalent in both kinds of schools.

CREDO receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which is pro-charter.

The same study found evidence that charter school students in Washington posted higher learning gains than their peers, but those gains were not found to be statistically significant.