A longtime advocate for public education has taken the reins of the state’s charter-school association, weathering vigorous opposition and bitter legal challenges — all in his first seven months on the job.
After a long career advocating for traditional public education, Patrick D’Amelio recently stepped up to lead the Washington State Charter Schools Association, which aims to spread the word about this locally untested model.
Charters are public schools funded with state dollars but operated here by private nonprofits, and the longest-running in Washington has been open only since 2015.
Education Lab caught up with D’Amelio over the holiday break to ask why things would be any different here, and who’s enrolling their children in charters, despite continuing challenges to their legality and the fact that Seattle’s school board vigorously opposes their presence.
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This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Q: It’s early still, but about 2,400 kids have enrolled in Washington’s 10 charter schools. Why do you think parents are making this leap, considering that a legal ruling could still close them down?
A: The number one reason I hear is that parents want to have control over where their children go to school. They want the ability to make a good match with their student’s learning style — rather than being assigned.
Also, every charter school in this state has a higher percentage of teachers of color than average. That’s pretty remarkable, and it could be an important aspect of a parent’s choice.
Q: The idea of charter schools provokes highly charged reactions — particularly in Seattle. Is that frustrating for you?
A: What’s frustrating is the absolute lack of understanding and misstatements of fact from a very vocal opposition. I’m not against opposition, but I think it has to be factually based. For example, you’ll hear “charters don’t serve special-education students” or they aren’t open to all. But about 74 percent of students in Washington charters are low income, and most of these schools have more special-education kids than the average in their districts.
In media coverage it’s sometimes not even clear that charter schools are free, public, obligated to provide basic education and accountable to the academic structure of our state.
Q: What’s your feeling about school vouchers?
A: We are not supportive of vouchers because they transfer public money to private systems that are not publicly accountable.
Q: You are a parent to two children. Are they in charter schools?
A: My son is in our regular neighborhood middle school, and my daughter was in a private Catholic school until she joined him there this year. This is what’s working for them, and I want every parent to be able to make those types of choices. It’s a fundamental question of fairness to me.
Q: What’s been most challenging for you so far as leader of the state charter association?
A: We’re struggling for equitable funding and parity — particularly around special education, because we have a disproportionally high number of special-needs students. So something’s got to get fixed there.
Also, where other schools can go out and raise money through levies or bonds, we have no access to any of that. And we don’t have the same options on affordable real estate. That can be very tricky for a school in its early phase.
Q: What does public education need most?
A: Innovation. We have a common school system that’s over a century old and has not innovated much. I want to be involved with systems that are pushing the edge, pushing the model. More tailored to individual learning styles. We need to be much more creative.