Election 2012: Charter Schools

Initiative I-1240 would establish a system allowing privately operated and publicly funded “charter” schools. Initially only forty charter schools would be permitted over the first five years.

I’m skeptical of charter schools in general: if we’re going to spend public money on schools, I want it going to the regular school system, not one that a parent has to choose to apply to get their child into. Worse, very little I’ve read suggests charter schools educate students better. So why would I want such a system here?

The proposed law

The proposed law creates a commission to authorize and fund up to forty non-profit charter schools. Teacher certification requirements for these schools would be the same as for other public schools. The charter schools would have to allow any student to enter (using a lottery to choose if there are too many students applying). The charter schools would be subject to the same academic standards as public schools, would receive equivalent funding and be overseen by the state charter commission or the local school board. The main differences are that the charter schools would not be subject to local rules regarding hiring and firing of teachers, have more flexibility on curriculum and teaching methods or tools.

Oddities of the proposal:

  • Charter schools are allowed to go into debt, but that debt couldn’t be serviced using public funds and the debt is not secured by the state. I don’t understand how this would work at all. They would be non-profit organizations that can’t charge fees for enrollment or attendance. Where would they reasonably get their money? I suppose there are private educational grants, but it seems like a pretty risky way to plan to repay a loan. Considering the charter schools would also be authorized to apply for state grants and loans for building or improving schools, I’m not sure why this provision even exists. It seems likely that if it were used much at all, schools would go bankrupt leaving students in the lurch (well, having to transfer to the “normal” public school).
  • Speaking of the above, charter schools would be allowed to solicit gifts, donations and grants (as long as they aren’t sectarian or religious). I imagine this could be difficult to police and enforce.

Vote No on I-1240

I’m skeptical that charter schools make any sense at all at this point. This proposal makes them subject to nearly all the rules a regular public school would be. What stops just allowing school districts more flexibility? We already have magnet schools to specialize (e.g. technology schools). The main way the charter school can be different is in its teacher hiring and firing policy and it’s just not clear to me that would “fix” education. Moreover, other states haven’t seen terribly great benefits from charter schools. In New York only 10% of charter students were considered college ready despite 49% graduation rates — those averages for the entire state were 41% and 77% respectively. Similar (though usually less dramatic) differences have been seen in other states showing that charter schools aren’t really doing better than public schools in general. Why would we remove money from the schools that almost all students will actually attend to pay for something that has low odds of success?

Moreover, given what I’ve read, many of our educational outcome problems may be due more to differences in early education and health. Kevin Drum covers this topic a lot and it seems pretty clear that the best thing we as a society we could do is put lots of money into day care, pre-kindergarten and early age health interventions (e.g. lead abatement). It’s sad for all those kids in high school — it seems almost like we’d be giving up on them. But given limited funds, I’d far rather they go to toddler school and nutrition programs than experimental charter schools. Vote No on I-1240.

This post is part of series on the 2012 election, focused on the state of Washington. I highly recommend having a look at the state’s main voter guide before casting your ballot.