To charter or not: school supporters debate

The state Legislature has begun to hear the arguments on both sides of the issue: a plus for disadvantaged students in the eyes of supporters, and a waste of resources for little or no return to opponents.

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As soon as next year, Eatonville High School could be running on a four-day week

The state Legislature has begun to hear the arguments on both sides of the issue: a plus for disadvantaged students in the eyes of supporters, and a waste of resources for little or no return to opponents.

Rep. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard, has received hundreds of emails on the pros and cons of charter schools. Angel is still undecided on the concept.

She has visited several charter schools. "Some work really good and some don't," she said.

Will the fourth time be the charm for charter schools in Washington?

Two companion bills are working their ways thorugh Washington's Senate and House to create charter schools with an accompanying cousin-like version called a Transformation Zone District.

Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Bellevue, introduced the bipartisan Senate bill — believing the timing is much riper now than the state's last flirtation with this controversial concept in 2004. Rep. Eric Pettigrew, D-Seattle, introduced the same bipartisan bill in the House. Of the 57 schools that the state government sees as the lowest-performing academically, five are in his district, he said.  

More states — 41 plus Washington, D.C. — have charter schools than in 2004, Tom said. Plus, America is currently doing serious soul-searching about education, and there are 5,275 charter schools in the nation.

Glenn Anderson, R-Fall City, is the chief co-sponsor of Pettigrew's bill.  He said Washington has not made sufficient progress is in addressing the gap between "the educational haves and have-nots."

Tom said, "Washington has a history of innovation (in education), and this bill will add one more option to that flexibility, ... We've taken the best of what works." Pettigrew said:" It is supposed to be targeted to those students who are not doing well."

"Charter schools are by no means a panacea. But I think excellent opportunity" to try to improve education, said Robin Lake, associate director of the University of Washington's Center on Reinventing Public Education. Much of her research is on charter schools.

Critics, though, are already questioning whether the bill is tightly drawn, and they point out that state voters have repeatedly rejected charter schools.

The charter school portions of Tom's and Pettigrew's bills are set up as follows.

An "authorizer" — which could be a school district, a four-year college, or a new Washington State Charter School Commission — would hire a non-profit corporation to run a charter school. Up to 10 charter schools could be created each year, accumulating up to a total of 50 such schools. These arrangements would be five-year contracts with options to renew.

A majority of each year's 10 schools would be expected to serve what the state would specify as educationally disdvantaged students. In theory, then, a minority of the schools could be aimed at students other than economically disadvantaged  such as artists, science-oriented students, or others. And the wording of one section sets up a situation where the majority of schools could be for such purposes if there are few charter applicants seeking to serve disadvantaged students. 

The non-profit corporation would have significant leeway in how to run its school. For example, a teacher in a needed speciality could be paid extra when hired, as opposed to being paid according to a union contract with seniority and education credits being the biggest factors in a teacher's wages. Or pay increases could be based on merit rather the seniority, Tom said. Another potential area for leeway would be in extending hours or days of school. The charters would have exemption from many state regulations.

The school's students would not pay any tuition, and, if there were too many students applying to admit them all, they would be selected via lottery. Preference would be granted to siblings of existing students, and a limited number of preferences would be allowed for the children of a school's founders, board members, and full-time employees.

Charter schools would likely use existing buildings, although the door is open to building new schools, Tom said. The rental and construction money could come from the state's capital budget or from outside philanthropic donations, he said. Charter schools would not have the power to levy their own taxes.   

The State Board of Education would supervise whether the authorizers and the non-profit corporations are performing well. 

Meanwhile, if the bills pass, the Office of the Superintendent  of Public Instruction would supervise 10 to 20 low-achieving schools in a statewide Transformation Zone District program to improve education for their pupils. Schools in this program would have leeways similar charter schools, but would be supervised by OSPI.

In two hearings last week, supporters argued that disadvantaged students need every available option to improve their education. They argued that charter schools have good track records elsewhere; can show how educational red tape can be trimmed to good effect; and would be almost totally paid by existing education money following the students. They also contended charter schools would have adequate pubic supervision of expenditures. 

Opponents argued many charter schools have done poorly; that trimming red tape for a few schools should be replaced by eliminating the same red tape for all schools; and that the non-profit corporations in charge of charter schools would not be adequately supervised by taxpayers. And they contended charter schools would siphon money from a statewide education system that the Washington Supreme Court recently ruled is inadequately funding schools.

Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, asked: "Why is this better or more flexible than our current alternative schools?"

Catherine Ahl, education chairwoman for the Washington League Women Voters and former North Kitsap school board member, said innovative schools are already possible without charter schools. She did not believe in eliminating regulations for charter schools, while keeping them in place for other schools.

"If that is the secret silver bullet, then eliminate them for all schools," Ahl said.

Ahl and several others questioned having non-profit corporations in charge of charter schools, shielding the nut-and-bolts operations and finances from public, taxpayer-related oversight.

Ahl and others, including the Washington Education Association, argued that underfunding of schools is the biggest problem, and that providing adequate funding, as ordered by the state Supreme Court, would go a long way toward fixing many current troubles.

Rep. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, sees the charter school concept as needing extra money from a state that that the Washington Supreme Court has declared as not meeting its legal obligations to pay for school. 

"Our belief is that it will take extra money, which we don't believe is available at this time," said Lucinda Young, representing the Washington Education Association.

Critics also raised questions on how students are selected to attend charter schools.

Shawn Lewis, representing Washington's Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn, said Dorn opposes the concept. The OSPI finds the authorizing process confusing and believes the concept should be taken to a public referendum.

Tom countered that charter schools are accountable to the public, noting they can be shut down if they don't improve education for disadvantaged students. 

He cited their growing use elsewhere — picking up support from parents and teachers in other states, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Michigan-based philanthropic Eli and Edithe Broad Foundation.

Tom contended charter schools allow new educational practices to be tested and perfected. Also, Tom argued the operation of charter schools would not increase the state's education operating costs, saying existing state and local education money will follow the charter students to the new schools.

Amy Bell, representing the business-oriented Washington Roundtable, which supports charters, said voters on local levies will know that part of those taxes will go to local charter schools. The charter school would likely rent their buildings, with Tom saying the rental money would come the state's capital fund or from private third-party donations.

The bills' supporters said it would create another option to help at-risk students improve their educations and futures. Whitworth University student Macy Olivas attended a charter school in a poor, non-white neighborhood in San Diego. "This bill specifically addresses these at-risk kids," Olivas said.

She credited her charter school with inspiring her to go to college, noting that she routinely  took courses that would be considered advanced in normal schools without knowing those classes would be considered difficult elsewhere. 

Erin Gustafson of Seattle-based Stand for Children, said: "It galls me that some of the loudest opponents to charter schools have access to options to send their kids."

Tom said he believes the Washington is more receptive to charter schools than it was when it rejected the concept in 2004. "In 2004, teacher union were pouring big bucks in what I considered a misinformation campaign," Tom said.

Washington state voters have rejected charter schools three times, turning down initiatives drawn up by charter supporters in 1996 and 2000 and voting down a charter school law in a 2004 referendum on a law already enacted by the Legislature. The only relatively close vote was in 2000 when Initiative 729 drew 48 percent approval. The 2004 referendum vote was 58 percent against charter schools. 

Disclosure: Crosscut receives some of its funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

This story has been revised since it first appeared.


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John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at and on Twitter at @johnstang_8