If state lawmakers truly value equity in education, they should eschew knee-jerk political opposition to public charter schools and extend the authorizing window for new ones.
This is the final year for authorizing new schools under a 2016 law rooted in an earlier voter-approved initiative. A bipartisan proposal, House Bill 1195, would give nonprofit groups five more years to establish new charters. The bill, sponsored by House Education Committee Vice Chair Rep. Laurie Dolan, D-Olympia, and co-sponsored by more than a half-dozen Democrats and Republicans, is scheduled for public hearing on Jan. 29.
If lawmakers deny this extension, they deny opportunities to Washington students who can’t change ZIP codes or enroll in expensive private schools to better meet their educational and social-emotional needs.
Washington’s charters have proved a valuable public alternative to traditional public schools in their first few years of operation, particularly during the pandemic. But, in part, because of the rigor of the state application process and persistent opposition by the statewide teachers union and other groups, there are far fewer than the 40 such schools allowed by law. Twelve schools are operating, serving around 3,600 students. Another seven schools have been approved to open in the next two years. Unless lawmakers extend the authorization window, these 19 will be the only ones in the state.
Washington’s public charter schools are nonprofits open to all children free of charge and by choice. They complement — not compete — with traditional public schools. Most serve higher percentages of students of color, those living in poverty, and those with disabilities. They employ more educators of color. Engagement and educational equity are central to their mission.
The Charter School Commission oversees the schools and holds them to strict performance standards. Early data are promising. The most recent report shows that in spring 2019, charter school students, on average, performed as well as or slightly better than their peers attending traditional public schools on state assessments for English, math and science, although performance varied between charters. Charter students on average matched or exceeded other students in nearly every measure of academic growth.
Still, opponents, most notably the Washington Education Association, have fought tooth-and-nail against charters, using some other states’ experiences with for-profit or poorly regulated schools as bait. Lawmakers must see through those false narratives and focus on the actual facts in Washington.
The pandemic only underscored the need for these flexible, outcomes-focused public school alternatives. When classrooms were shuttered last March, charters were able to quickly pivot to support and educate their students.
For example, Catalyst: Bremerton launched a free virtual project-based learning camp months before the school’s official opening in August. Rainier Prep‘s four-week summer enrichment program was so popular, they had to add staff.
Anti-racist policies and curricula are nothing new to charters like Rainier Valley Leadership Academy, where 97% of students and 72% of teachers are people of color, and 80% of the leadership team is Black.
During the public health emergency, many Washington charters forged new cooperation with neighboring school districts, facilitating the exchange of ideas at the core of charters’ intent. Impact Public Schools is sharing learning with members of small rural districts through The Rural Alliance. Cascade Public Schools launched a learning hub and rented space at a Des Moines hotel to give students access to tech, even though they’re enrolled in other schools.
Not every charter established in Washington has been successful. That’s not surprising, given the extra financial and organizational pressures of starting a school from scratch without the ability to raise capital at the ballot box like other public schools. But the answer is to give charters the support they need to address these unique challenges.
As lawmakers deliberate ways to ensure the education of every Washington student, as our state Constitution commands, HB 1195 should be the easiest decision.