Third Wave Of Washington Charter Schools Eyed

Third Wave Of Washington Charter Schools Eyed
Another wave of charter school applicants may materialize in Washington state this year, and proposals are due at the end of March. Eight charters are currently operating in Washington, with three more approved to open this fall. Photo: Excel Charter Academy.

Opening and running a charter school isn’t for the faint of heart, but in Washington their ranks will grow this year with three more starting up in the fall. Eight are already running – six under state supervision in King and Pierce counties, and two under the Spokane School District’s purview. The kicker? More operator applicants may enter the pipeline, even as a second legal challenge to Washington charters unfolds in the courts.

March 31 Deadline

This week and next in Seattle and Vancouver, Washington, potential new applicants to run state-authorized charter schools are meeting with officials to boost their odds for success. Under the state’s timeline, notices of intent to file a 2017 application are due February 17. The applications are required by March 31. The State Charter School Commission will decide at a June 29 meeting which applications to accept. Its members are appointed by Governor Jay Inslee and legislative caucuses, and also include the heads of the state board of education and state superintendent’s office.

The Spokane District does not expect new applicants this year due to a pending lawsuit against charters statewide, said board president Deanna Brower.

State law authorizes 40 charter schools. The first eight came from a pool that included 26 applicants to the state between 2013 and 2015, and an additional three to Spokane.

One possible application this year stems from Cascade Micro Schools, a Sammamish-based non-profit led by Christine Wright, a former teacher in Issaquah, Seattle and The Bronx. She also served as a founding lead teacher for the charter school organization KIPP, in New Jersey, and as a Teach For America corps member. Cascade’s niche is small K-5 schools that prepare students for demanding middle school and high school courses, and then competitive colleges and rewarding careers.

Cascade is merging into a new non-profit, Impact Public Schools. It includes in its leadership Jen Wickens, the chief regional officer in Washington for Summit Public Schools, which operates several charters here. The consortium is said to be aiming to locate in Renton, if it applies and gains state approval.

Another possible applicant is Dr. Wanda Billingsly, a former administrator in the Tukwila, Federal Way and Seattle school districts. She is said to be considering an elementary grades charter school in the vicinity of South Seattle or Tukwila.

Lessons Learned In Washington

State Rep. Larry Springer (D-45), a member of the House Education Committee, said the potential next wave of operator applicants would be a “clear indication there are legitimate alternative methods of educating students in this state.” He added that nationwide there have been charters both “highly successful”  and ones that were “disasters,” but that Washington has been “cognizant of the pitfalls” and limits charters to non-profits which prioritize low-income, English As A Second Language and special needs students.

Springer, a former teacher, said “the politics of charters schools is not an issue” for him and what matters is, “When I look in a student’s eyes and I see them excited about learning.” That’s happening now, Springer emphasized, and the latest state test results show charter school students “basically outperformed” in-district peers at traditional public schools. “Not overwhelmingly, but it was better,” he added.

In late 2016, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) ranked Washington tied for first place among U.S. states in having a rigorous framework for overseeing charter schools. The ratings were based on eight policies tied to access, autonomy and accountability. In the report (p. 111), NACSA noted the state currently has a relatively low percentage of students served by charters and relatively few authorizers.

State And National Findings Show Benefits

Evidence continues to accumulate that charter schools can significantly benefit students. That’s according to two rounds of data from Washington state which surfaced in February and August of 2016; and a number of reports from around the nation.

Those include findings from:

Improvements in educational outcomes tied to charter schools tend to be focused on urban minority populations, and may occur gradually, as schools improve. In Washington, 67 percent of students at public charter schools are minorities, versus 43 percent at traditional public schools.

Fiscal Impact Miniscule

Opponents nonetheless argue that public charter schools threaten fiscal resources for the majority of Washington K-12 students. However, while the state K-12 operating budget is $18.2 billion in the current biennium, state expenditures for charter schools were about $10 million in the current fiscal year. That number will rise somewhat as the number of Washington charters grows, but the idea that charter schools are a fiscal threat to traditional public schools just doesn’t hold water, Springer said.

A first lawsuit against Washington charters was co-filed by the statewide teachers labor union, and ultimately required a bi-partisan legislative fix delivered last spring, to maintain public funding for the new schools. Opponents filed a new lawsuit last August, but a final ruling may not occur until next year.

Tom Franta, Executive Director of the Washington Charter Schools Association (WCSA), said one part of the legislative agenda of Washington charters in 2017 is to “protect the integrity of our law” from possible attacks. He said risks could include attempts to tighten caps on the number of charters allowed in the state or within regions, or to advance the “decoupling” of charters from public school per-pupil funding formulas.

Performance Data Show Need For School Choice

The need for alternatives to traditional public schools in Washington, other than private schools which are out of reach for many families, is supported by performance data.

Results from the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) show less than half of Washington 4th and 8th graders in 2015 reached the level of “proficient” in math, reading and science.

There’s more. The public high school graduation rate for Washington in 2015 was 78 percent, three points below the national average, and less than a third of the state’s population earns a post-secondary degree by age 26.

State data show that post-secondary remedial course taking in Washington is highest in math and among minorities. The rate is more than four in 10 among Latinos, and nearly that level for African-Americans and Native Americans. In Washington community colleges alone, more than half of students take remedial courses.

Getting it right in the early years is critical, and school choice matters, according to Seattle charter school parent Shirline Wilson. She says, “Education is a marketplace and consumers deserve the highest quality at the most equitable price…I should be able to fire my child’s school and take my business to another if he is not getting the education he needs.”

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