What you need to know about Washington’s Charter Public Schools: A record of success

It’s been a while since we last wrote about charter public schools. So an update is in order.

The Washington State Charter Schools Association has provided great and timely information, including a fact sheet and blog update. In the eight charter public schools, for example,

  • More than 67 percent of charter public school students in Washington are students of color, as compared to 43 percent statewide.
  • Approximately two-thirds of students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals, as compared to 45 percent statewide. At four of Washington’s charter public schools, the number exceeds 70 percent.
  • Charter public schools in Washington serve many students with special education needs. 12 percent of Washington’s charter public school students are eligible for special education services, as compared with 13 percent statewide.

These facts help frame the discussion that may occur in the 2017 legislative session. Also, consider the information on each of the schools provided on page 2 of the fact sheet. It’s a demonstration of the charter public schools’ transparency and accountability.

This information complements this Seattle Times article explaining what charter public schools can do that other public schools cannot.

Charters get that flexibility in three main ways:

1. They have more control over whom they hire — and fire.

2. They answer to an appointed rather than an elected school board.

3. They are accountable to a charter authorizer rather than a school district, which allows them to define their own goals and success metrics.

 The article includes the back-and-forth between teachers’ union critics of the schools and charter public school advocates. We liked this pair of observations:

Robin Lake, director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education, has studied charter schools for the past 20 years, and says school districts weren’t built for innovation.

“I’ve been asked over the years, ‘Couldn’t we just change one regulation here or adjust the law there?’ But real innovation dies a death by a thousand cuts in our traditional system,” she said. “It’s not one rule, it’s not the union contract per se, it’s not the elected board politics per se, it’s not a large bureaucracy per se. It’s a system that, taken together, was really built for a different purpose than innovating.”

Mitch Price, policy director of the Washington State Charter Schools Association, said when a school’s autonomy relies on waivers or exceptions — versus official laws or policies — it’s easy for them to fall through the cracks.

“If political winds change, or if there are new folks at the central office or new school-board members, policy can wither on the vine … whereas, the benefit, I suppose, in the charter law, is that stuff is baked into the statute,” he said.

As the article points out, charter public schools are not likely to replace traditional public schools, nor should they. They provide a valuable alternative, a complement, to the traditional system; one that works well for many students and which should be preserved. Here’s another pertinent observation from the article:

Steven Gering, Spokane’s chief academic officer, said it’s important for all the school models to learn from each other.

“When you look at the research and ask the question ‘Are charter schools doing better than traditional public schools on average?’ The answer is no,” he said.

“But there’s a group of them that do really, really amazing and get these crazy results. And I think what everyone, no matter what side you’re on, wants to know is what is it about that 20 percent of schools that are getting such great results that are worth studying? That’s the intriguing part of it.”

For more information on charter public schools, we recommend this free ebook published by Education Week

This e-book is a collection of articles published in Education Week over the past 25 years, marking some of the more notable moments in charter school history.

More than a stroll through history, it’s a reminder of battles fought, lessons learned and applied, and the opportunities ahead.