Blog: The Educated Reporter

Will Washington State’s Charter Schools Survive?

The Washington State Capitol in Olympia, where lawmakers are looking for a legislative compromise to keep charter schools open. (Flickr/Mark Goebel)

A legislative Hail Mary intended to preserve Washington State’s fledgling charter schools is headed to the governor’s desk, the Seattle Times reports.

Charter schools are publicly funded campuses but are intended to operate more independently than traditional campuses. In 2012, Washington voters approved a referendum allowing up to 40 new charter schools over a five-year period. However, Washington’s state constitution features a strict definition of “common schools” – i.e. those that are publicly funded – and how they must be governed. The charter schools are overseen by appointed, rather than elected, leadership, and that is at odds with the law, the Supreme Court ruled last fall.

Since that ruling, which cut off state funding for the schools, Washington’s eight charter campuses have been in limbo. Lawmakers have struggled for a compromise that would preserve the will of the voters while addressing the underlying issue of constitutionality. 

The state started the academic year with nine charter schools serving about 1,000 students total. Since the Supreme Court ruling, one campus has reverted back to a private school, and two more converted into home-schooling centers. The remaining six campuses are fighting to survive, relying on outside help to keep the doors open.

Indeed, these schools have become symbolic of the larger battle. Nonprofit organizations and private donors (including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) have committed significant resources to the fight to protect school choice in Washington State and keep the schools financially afloat.

Approved by the House and Senate late this week, the proposed legislation awaits the signature of Democratic Governor Jay Inslee. The legislative compromise would use lottery revenues to pay for the charter schools instead of the state’s general fund. It also increases oversight of the independently operated campuses. 

Applauding the lawmakers’ actions, Nina Rees, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools president and CEO, said in a statement ”we celebrate the parents who led this charge, and the school and movement leaders who refused to take no for an answer. Their amazing efforts on behalf of Washington’s students has led to one of the most remarkable victories in the history of this movement.”

But this is far from a guaranteed fix, and additional court challenge could be ahead. From John Higgins’ reporting for The Seattle Times:

Rep. Chad Magendanz, R-Issaquah, ranking member of the House Education Committee, called it a “simple and elegant solution” to the Supreme Court’s ruling.

But attorney Paul Lawrence, who represented those who filed the lawsuit challenging charters, said switching to lottery funds is just an accounting trick.

“That doesn’t strike me as any different from paying it out of the general fund,” Lawrence said. “I don’t really see that that accomplishes a fix.”

Writing for the News-Tribune, Debbie Cafazzo reports that some of the charters are posting sizable gains in student achievement. Among them: two high schools operated by Summit Public Schools, a California-based charter management organization. (Read more about Summit’s data-driven model for teaching and learning here.) 

From Cafazzo’s reporting:

Summit reports that on the nationally norm-referenced Measures of Academic Progress test, Tacoma’s Summit Olympus students:

  • More than doubled the national average growth in reading and more than tripled the national average growth in math.
  • Placed in the top third of schools in the nation in terms of math growth.

The growth occurred even though nearly half of Summit Olympus students entered school in the fall an average of four years below grade-level in reading and math, Summit officials said.

Writing for The 74, Kate Stringer points out that Summit isn’t the only charter success story in Washington State, particularly when it comes to historically underserved student populations:

Data released by the Washington State Charter Schools Association showed students have made significant gains since the start of the year, some outpacing national peers.

Two-thirds of Washington’s charter students are low income and 70 percent are students of color, the charter association reports. Black, Hispanic and Native American students in Washington score 15-20 points lower on state tests than their white peers.

While the legislative drama continues into the next act, it’s worth noting that other states are also wrangling with constitutional challenges to their school choice laws.

In Nevada, a state judge granted the ACLU’s demand for an injunction to block the new education savings account (ESA) law, which would allow families to spend state dollars on private and parochial school tuition and other education-related expenses. That ruling was based on the conclusion that it violates Nevada’s constitutional prohibition against using public dollars for private schools. Widely seen as the most expansive private school choice policy in the country, Nevada’s ESA plan is being closely watched by both friends and foes.

And while Washington State’s Supreme Court took a year to decide on the question of charters, Nevada could be looking at a significantly shorter timeline for a ruling: The State Supreme Court is fast-tracking the case and expects to be be deliberating by the the middle of next month.

For more, including the latest research and news coverage, visit EWA’s Topics page on Charters & Choice. We also focused on these topics at a seminar in Denver last winter. You can find write-ups from those sessions, as well as video highlights, here