Washington’s 16 charter schools educate a fraction of the state’s K-12 students — just 4,800 kids compared with more than 1 million in traditional public schools. State law marginalizes them further, treating charter school students as second-class learners, entitled to significantly less funding.
That’s because the state Supreme Court effectively barred charter schools from accessing local levies, which can add as much as $3,000 extra per student to the state’s basic education allotment.
Yet charters educate more students of color from lower-income families — as a percentage, there are nearly six times as many Black children in Washington charter schools as in the overall K-12 population. So it’s hard to miss the equity problem here: State law allows for schools educating a higher proportion of disadvantaged students to get less public money.
“It’s a textbook example of systemic inequality,” says Natalie Hester, co-president of the Washington State Charter School Association.
The main argument against these schools, which are open to the public, is that they divert money from traditional public schools. But no one, in good conscience, would say that kids should be trapped in poor-performing schools that fail to meet their needs. And some parents clearly see charters as a welcome change.
During the first year of the pandemic, their enrollment shot up by 35%, while the population in traditional public schools shrank by 3%, according to an analysis from the Center on Reinventing Public Education.
Because the total charter school population is comparatively tiny, any change looks enormous. But there were similar patterns with special education students: Enrollment was down in traditional public schools but up by more than 14% in charters. Same goes for English language learners — their numbers were down by about 5% in traditional public schools but spiked by nearly 50% in charters.
As for outcomes: A study published by the Washington state Board of Education in 2021 found that specific types of students in charter schools, particularly nonnative English speakers and those from low-income families, “consistently outperformed” their peers in traditional public schools.
“It’s very frustrating. These schools are doing everything we wanted them to do, but they can’t get the funding,” said Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah. He is sponsoring a bill that would provide charters with more money for tutoring, English language learners, highly capable and special needs students, and transportation.
But Washington’s constitution says only schools governed by a locally elected board can use levy funds for these extras, which cuts out charters. The workaround favored by Mullet is a pot of money known as the Local Effort Assistance program. In general, LEA funding is aimed at districts unable to raise enough through local levies because of low property values. But in 2019, the state agreed that tribal compact schools, which also run without a locally elected board, could access LEA money.
No surprise that charter-school advocates jumped on this as a precedent that should apply to them too.
Sadly, that will be a stretch. Sen. Lisa Wellman, chair of the Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee, has been blunt about her distaste for charters, despite the will of voters who enacted the charter school law. She’d rather they come under the jurisdiction of a local school district, as is the case in Spokane. “I like the idea of that kind of oversight,” she said.
It’s disappointing that the chair of the Senate Education Committee would abide such inequity in lawful public schools because of a personal preference.
Voters demanded the charter option believing that these schools would be funded at comparable rates. Without such parity, Washington is perpetuating an educational caste system, where some kids remain in schools that are being slowly, intentionally, starved.
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