Charters may push public schools to reform the hard way
In Our Opinion
There’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding I-1240, the initiative on next month’s ballot to create public charter schools in Washington.
For those living in the world of public K-12—and there are a lot of them in our community—it could signal either an exciting new option to help students learn or a looming threat to their school budgets and ultimately their jobs.
For those outside, though, I-1240 probably doesn’t mean much. Perhaps you saw a sign and found out about the initiative, but are wondering about the logistics. We dug into the voters’ guide, read the opinions on both sides and asked our local school leaders for their thoughts. With all that work done, we’re still unsure, but at least we’ll be informed when the ballot arrives.
First, we read through the initiative and got the gist of what it would do. The initiative would create a system of public charter schools, allowing the creation—either by starting new schools or changing public schools to charters—of up to 40 charter schools over five years.
These schools would be run by non-profit organizations and would not charge tuition or limit enrollment. They would have to meet the same academic and operational requirements as regular public schools, but they wouldn’t have to follow the same rules to get there.
The public charter schools would receive the same per-student state funding allocation that regular public schools get now, but they would not be able to charge tuition, levy taxes or issue tax-backed bonds.
While 41 states currently allow charter schools, it’s still unknown how it would work here. The state predicts that there would be a financial impact to local school districts, and estimates $3.09 million in implementation costs over five years.
The financial burden is one of the biggest reasons the Washington Education Association is opposing the initiative. Indeed, with the McCleary decision breathing down the necks of state lawmakers, adding charter schools, not to mention a new state agency to authorize them, would only increase the financial load on the state.
Those who support I-1240 say that Washington’s students deserve the option of attending charter schools, which usually take alternative approaches to education. Studies have shown that charter school students do better than their public school neighbors on state exams, and charters often help kids who struggled in traditional public schools through elementary and middle school.
Supporters also say charter schools would advance education as a whole in Washington by testing new methods and figuring out what best helps students learn. They would have freedom from the state statutes and rules that public schools adhere to. That freedom could lead to better teaching, better learning and more prepared students and public schools would have to keep up to keep students in their buildings.
But if it’s the rules and red tape that are holding public schools back from helping kids learn, those schools shouldn’t be penalized for following them. Maybe an easier solution would be to fix the rules to allow public schools to control themselves a bit more.
Of course, change is hard for anyone, but it’s especially hard for megalithic organizations like the state of Washington. Lessons never seem to be learned the easy way when it comes to governance in our state. So maybe charter schools will help teach our state a few lessons the hard way. Maybe we should shake things up a bit.