The challenges with First Place offer some important lessons on the future of charter schools in Washington state.
Last Thursday, following a challenging school year of well-documented struggles, warnings and requests for remedies, the Washington State Charter School Commission decided, by a 4-3 vote, to allow First Place Scholars Charter School to continue operating — at least for now.
Analysis of the decision should be less about asking, “Did the Commission get it right?” — the answer to which only time will tell — and more about lessons learned from the state’s first charter school. So what does First Place’s status tell us and not tell us about Washington’s charter future?
For starters, we’re learning that that the Commission is committed to handling its responsibilities through a genuine and deliberate public process. The Commission’s handling of First Place deserves high praise for fulfilling values of transparency and public accountability.
First Place is forcing the Commission to grow up faster and more publicly than most authorizers are required to do. A strong charter community depends on schools and the public having accurate information about performance. The authorizer’s first opportunity to do this is usually well after the end of a school’s first year — through the relatively routine process of publishing state assessment results and posting financial audit reports — but the Commission has had to figure out its values and practices with a school in crisis.
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From the outset, the Commission has risen to the demands of public accountability by identifying and clearly documenting concerns; being direct about what it means to make things right; and setting clear expectations for remedy.
When it comes to the substance of its work, we are seeing that the Commission still needs to follow the money. First Place seems to be making meaningful strides in meeting its obligations to children with disabilities and especially its English language learners. These are important developments. But First Place still has a large funding shortfall from its special education expense commitments and from assumptions that don’t seem to line up with the school’s proposed budget. It has also failed to reach fundraising targets that are necessary to sustain its core program. Limping across this year’s financial finish line is not the same as being prepared for next year.
Even as First Place remains a story in progress, Thursday’s decision marks a good time for the media to pull the lens back and take a broader view. The Washington media have been in a frenzy with First Place, making its status as front page news for months. This is understandable, as it is the first and currently only operating charter school in a state that worked for at least a decade to get a charter law. But in a few months, there will be eight new charters in operation from Spokane to Tacoma. In a few years, there may be as many as 40.
Data on college readiness makes it clear that Washington’s charter schools have big educational problems to help solve. In 2014, fewer than half of all Washington students who took the SAT scored high enough to be considered college ready. Among minorities, the gap becomes a chasm: Only 20 percent of Hispanic students and only 18 percent of African American students were college ready.
Charter schools are not about creating a few good schools for a few lucky families; they are about creating high-quality opportunities for all kids. That objective requires planning and perseverance. It requires us to acknowledge what’s working and not working. When we give all charters a full opportunity to succeed and learn from those that get it done well, and when we hold accountable those that don’t, that’s when the system works.
William Haft is vice president for authorizer development at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.