This is your kid's brain on charter schools

Charter schools have officially passed. Now what?
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Students at registration for Charleston Charter School for Math and Science. South Carolina is one of the states that allow charter schools.

Charter schools have officially passed. Now what?

Supporters call the results of Initiative 1240 a “clear victory,” though the latest tally shows it passing by a margin of 50.8 percent to 49.2 percent; similar, but diametrically opposed to the voting margin between gubernatorial candidates Rob McKenna, a charter school supporter, and Jay Inslee, who opposed the measure. 

Opponents say they were dramatically outspent and so the closeness of the vote proves that many people took time to carefully consider what charter schools would mean for Washington, now the 42nd state in the U.S. to allow them to operate, after saying no to charters three times before. Supporters say they had to counteract a campaign rife with misinformation and that the initiative was carefully written based on lessons learned from the failed 2004 charter school ballot measure.

The national media points out that charter school support cannot easily be linked to red or blue political leanings. In Washington, households and groups of friends were divided over whether charter schools would be another tool in our state’s educational toolbox or a distraction from the need to fully fund and efficiently run public schools. King County, home of Bill Gates, Paul Allen and the parents of Jeff Bezos, the initiative’s biggest supporters, voted against the measure. It fared better in Snohomish and Pierce counties, and had solid pockets of support in Eastern Washington.     

For better or worse, charter schools are coming to Washington state. What happens next?

Melissa Westbrook, a longtime schools activist and blogger who chaired an anti-charter schools campaign, says “School districts and the union brought themselves to this place by not asking what could be done differently.” She’s proud that organized opposition to Initiative 1240 sparked vibrant, robust discussion about the good and bad in Washington’s public schools. 

Westbrook would like to see these discussions continue, perhaps moderated by someone with the stature of Bill Gates, Sr. (no matter that his son is a key supporter of charter schools). In the meantime, she is carefully watching how implementation will unfold and collecting names for a charter schools watchdog organization on her blog, Seattle Schools Community Forum. 

She’s disappointed that implementation of the State Supreme Court’s determination that Washington has failed to meet its “paramount duty to fund public education” (known as the McCleary decision) was not resolved before the charter initiative returned to the ballot. Charter schools could make enactment of McCleary even more complicated, she worries.

“Our ‘north star’ is providing high quality schools to serve struggling students,” says Shannon Campion, executive director of Washington Stand for Children, one of the architects of Initiative 1240. Stand for Children endorsed Rob McKenna for governor, in part because of his support for charter schools. Campion says the reason Washington's charter school campaign gained traction because of a widespread acknowledgement of the need to close the academic opportunity gap and provide creative solutions for struggling students.

Though Campion won’t divulge whether there are already organizations waiting in the wings to open the first charter schools in Washington, or where the first schools might be, she is confident that there will be adequate oversight and strong community support associated with the establishment of any charter school. Not only will they not settle for anything less, neither Campion, nor her education reform coalition partners, plan to put all their eggs in the charter schools basket.

“Charters are part of the solution, not the silver bullet. We are also continuing to work on other structural changes, including making sure our state makes good on the McCleary decision. We need to put our money into the highest-yielding programs, such as more pre-kindergarten programs, all-day kindergarten, expanding academic acceleration opportunities, including more access to advanced placement and international baccalaureate classes.”

Campion also says it is crucial to devote resources to support the new teacher evaluation system, including providing the necessary professional development.

Hints of which communities might put out the welcome mat for charter schools have cropped up in the press. The Spokane Spokesman-Register reports that Superintendent Shelley Redinger, who helped set up charter schools as an Oregon school superintendent, is already thinking about what sorts of charters she’d like to see in Spokane. Meanwhile, Seattle School Superintendent Jose Banda, who has been reticent about many issues during his first months on the job, publicly opposed charter schools, along with leaders of 260 of the state’s 295 school districts.

The timing and bureaucracy of charter school implementation, including the establishment of a Washington Charter Schools Commission, has been spelled out in a list of frequently asked questions disseminated by the League of Education Voters, another education reform advocacy group that was instrumental in crafting and promoting Initiative 1240.

Westbrook has been critical of Gates Foundation education reform initiatives. On her blog, she says she fears that the Gates Foundation, as a potential part of a proposed “charter school incubator” being considered by the founding members of the Washington Coalition for Public Charter Schools, will have undue influence in choosing which charter school operators come to Washington. She characterizes this potential development as “the beginning of the takeover of public education in Washington State.”

Yet Westbrook says she will not stand in the way of charter schools, a sentiment that is likely to be echoed by other critics of Initiative 1240.

"We want to hear from the newly established charter schools commission and read more about the criteria the Board of Education establishes before deciding next steps," a representative from the Seattle School District said in a statement. "The decision about whether we would sponsor any proposed charter schools located in the Seattle School District would be left up to the Seattle School Board, which would conduct such a discussion during an open public meeting."

It remains to be seen whether those for and against charter schools in Washington can walk back from their divisive campaign talk and get down to the business of carefully and cooperatively implementing the plan, and also support leaders in state government as they figure out how to enact the McCleary decision.

Our students are waiting.

Mr. Gates, Sr., can you help?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Alison Krupnick

Alison Krupnick

Alison Krupnick, longtime Crosscut contributor, is the author of "Ruminations from the Minivan" and the blog "Slice of Mid-Life."