Posted November 15, 2012 by Cooper Point Journal in News
 
 

Public Charter Schools Approved in Washington


The Initiative

Those seeking alternative or customized education within Washington’s public education system will be happy to hear that state voters recently approved Initiative 1240, which allows for 40 new public charter schools to be authorized over a five-year period. These schools will be publicly funded but privately operated.

This allows for alternative curriculum design, scheduling, budgeting, hiring/firing processes and community relations. According to the initiative, only nonprofit organizations not recognized as sectarian or religious will be permitted to run these schools and “must meet all of the requirements for a public benefit nonprofit corporation before receiving any funding.”

While providing an alternative to public schools, charter schools remain part of the public education system. They adhere to the educational standards of the state, are authorized by state charter commissions or local school boards, cannot charge tuition and must perform state-mandated exams. The initiative states that if more students apply to a charter school than the school can enroll, new students will be selected “by lottery to ensure fairness.” However, charter schools are not required to fill openings, even if an applicant desires it.

Controversial Aspects

There has been some controversy over the ability for a majority of either parents or teachers to sign a charter applicant’s petition for the conversion of an existing public school into a charter school. As the organization ‘No On 1240’ writes on their website, “say your neighborhood elementary school has 18 teachers and they are convinced by a charter applicant to sign a petition. With 10 signatures, the charter flips the school and the entire community changes.”

Another controversial aspect is that charter schools are defined as ‘Local Education Agencies,’ or, synonymously, school districts. This means that, being their own school districts, they may operate outside of the district policies of the physical district within which they are located.

Authorization and Accountability

To be ‘authorizers’ – entities granted the authority to approve charters – local school boards apply to the State Board of Education, which then provides oversight over the effectiveness of the authorizers. Charter commission members, however, are selected by elected state officials – three by the Governor, three by the Speaker of the House, and three by the President of the Senate – and not reviewed or overseen by the State Board of Education. This draws attention to the possibility of special-interest lobbies influencing charter school commissions and their decisions through monetary means behind the scenes.

Additionally, charter commissions and school boards do not have to follow the same procedures to authorize charter applications. School boards are given a list of features and items to look for in a charter proposal, but charter commissions are not. Sections 209 and 212 of the initiative detail how authorizers are approved and what oversight they are given, but section 208 states, “Sections 209 and 212 of this act do not apply to the commission.”

The commission, therefore, is unregulated aside from the initial appointments made by state officials. There is no procedure detailed in the initiative for the removal of poorly-performing members of the commission.

As for who is able to be on these nine-person commissions, one member must be a Washington State public school parent. There are no strict qualifying factors besides, as the initiative states, “demonstrat[ing] an understanding of and commitment to charter schooling as a strategy for strengthening public education.”

Accountability vagueness remains, as well. In the initiative’s words: “A charter contract shall not be renewed if, at the time of the renewal application, the charter school’s performance falls in the bottom quartile of schools on the accountability index developed by the state board of education…unless the charter school demonstrates exceptional circumstances that the authorizer finds justifiable.” These “exceptional circumstances” are not clearly defined. Additionally, the initiative does not require public forum input from charter school staff or parents of charter school students regarding its non-renewal.

Efficacy

It will take time and study to see how the performance of these newly-allowed charter schools compares to public schools. Research from 2009 into the charter schooling systems of nineteen other states has been less than promising, however. A study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes by Stanford University found that only 17% of charter schools performed better than public schools, 46% were neither better nor worse and 37% did “significantly worse.”

The study, however, “[did] not reveal how grade-to-grade learning differs on average…And for now, this research does not explain performance in terms of specific curricular emphasis or school model.”

By Tyler Jones