What charter school initiative 1240 means for Capitol Hill kids

Dominoes, originally uploaded by Blinking Charlie.

Charter schools are a controversial topic — though, if history is a guide, less so in Washington State, where voters have turned them down three times: initiatives were rejected in 1995 and 2000, and a 2004 referendum canned a legislative attempt to allow charter schools in, 58% to 42%. In 2012, polls indicate the rejection might be coming to an end.

Initiative 1240 (pdf) would allow a limited number of charter schools in the state, 40 total over a five-year period, with more to come if performance is judged good enough. No more than eight charter schools can be established in any given year, though if less than eight open, the “unopened” schools can carry over to the next year’s allotment.

Because charter schools are considered public schools — they have to accept any student that applies, or if demand is too great, arrange a lottery, and charge no tuition — 1240 provides no separate funding for them. They would receive an allocation of state and federal education monies based on statewide spending per-pupil. However many students that enroll, that’s what the charter school receives. Here is where already underfunded public schools protest that the fiscal pie is not high enough to add forty more mouths. But there are other considerations.

For instance, Capitol Hill is mainly served by five public schools: Garfield HS, the “alternative” high school NOVA, Washington Middle School and the Stevens and Lowell elementary schools, all of which were rated an A- on performance back in 2010. (Were the Tom-Douglas-tested menus–lunch for $1.10 per student–a factor?) Seattle Public Schools has determined what the area could use most is a new middle school. SPS has recently proposed a $23-million makeover of the former Meany Middle School, to reopen for the 2017/18 school year. (Meany was closed at the end of 2008/09.). CHS posted details of the most recent Capitol Hill school report cards this morning.

If 1240 passes, Seattle Schools will face competition to put any of its unused space to work from any charter school that wanted to use the property:

A charter school has a right of first refusal to purchase or lease at or below fair market value a closed public school facility or property or unused portions of a public school facility or property located in a school district from which it draws its students if the school district decides to sell or lease the public school facility or property…

The charter school could be whatever it wants: elementary, middle, or high school. You can see how things could get tricky, sorting out competing interests, even though technically these are all considered public schools. The whole point of charter schools, after all, is their autonomy (aside from teacher certification and academic requirements) in a school district–which opens the door to conflicts with school district planning and strategies.

For the Yes on 1240 camp, charter schools aid overwhelmed public schools by focusing on underserved groups: “Our current public school system is working well for many students, but many others are struggling and at risk of dropping out.” The initiative specifically prioritizes charter schools that are designed to help poor or at-risk students, though of course it can’t promise anything, and it goes on to state that it certainly does not limit charter school applications to those designed for poor or at-risk students.

As it is an initiative, not everything about charter school operations can be spelled out. But 1240 is supposed to represent the best practices from the 41 states that allow them. It sets up a nine-member state charter school commission that is to act like a school district’s board of directors. Its members are appointed (not elected) by the Governor, Senate President, and Speaker of the House–each of whom get to pick three–to four-year terms. They are unpaid four-year terms. 

The commission and local school boards are the only entities that can authorize the five-year charter contracts. The charter schools themselves must be run by a non-profit, though the non-profit need not be educationally focused. Nor need it actually “run” the charter school: It is allowed to hire out for educational services from public and private companies. If it outsources school management, it must be to another non-profit. 

One of the eyebrow-raising complications is what’s known as a “conversion charter school.” Either a simple majority of teachers at an existing public school–or a simple majority of parents–can vote to make their school a charter school. This is potentially a minefield, since charter schools have substantial freedom to reinvent themselves. Though they are restricted, as public schools, from religious affiliation, they can sometimes push those boundaries: e.g., Shalom Academy Charter School, with its  “academically rigorous Hebrew language immersion program.”

As public schools, charter schools are eligible for any levy monies that are raised after their authorization. Conversion charter schools are eligible for levy monies raised for the previous school. A conversion charter school pays for ordinary building maintenance; the school district is responsible for all major repairs needed. 

Besides flexibility in curriculum choice and the hiring and firing of staff, charter schools are free of a number of apparently burdensome regulations. The No on 1240 campaign might argue that in some cases the regulations have simply been shifted to employees. For instance, the initiative requires that “bargaining units” (i.e., unions) must be staff only of that charter school, without links to other unions. Clearly, no single school’s union is going to wield the power of the WEA.

Both campaigns make reference to the recent Washington Supreme Court decision, in McLeary v.State, that Washington State has failed to adequately fund public schools. The Yes camp argues that charter schools will be less expensive and more efficient. The No camp argues that charter schools “will actually drain millions of dollars from existing public schools.” (The Progressive Voters Guide throws up its hands and gives you both options.)

Given that the initiative can’t address every facet of charter school operation, this presents the question of whether the public school devil you know is better than the charter school devil you don’t. However grudgingly, Washington public schools have been creating “innovation schools,” that act in ways like charter schools. There are now 22 of these schools, and Aviation HS is considered a stand-out. 

Fishy, originally uploaded by sea turtle.

The analytic voter may want to turn to a major study from Stanford University (pdf) of charter schools from 16 states. Though it has been widely quoted as showing 17% of charter schools outperform traditional public schools (TPS), the conclusion is sobering: “in the aggregate, charter students are not faring as well as their TPS counterparts.”  37% of charter schools do “significantly” worse than traditional schools, and 46% performed about the same. 

Stanford’s methodology, to make sure it was comparing real-world apples to real-world apples, was to find “virtual twins” in charter schools and traditional schools, so that they could see, over time, how any given charter school student’s progress compared to someone very similar at a nearby school. There are other ways to compare charter schools and TPS, but this matches up with how most parents might make a choice, rather than with some notional statewide test average.

We identify all the TPS that have students who transfer to a given charter school; we call each of these schools “feeder schools.” Once a school qualifies as a feeder school, all the students in the school become potential matches for a student in a particular charter school. All the student records from all the feeder schools are pooled – this becomes the source of records for creating the virtual match. Using the records of the students in those schools in the year prior to the test year of interest, CREDO selects all of the available records that match each charter school student.  

As it stands, in aggregate, traditional public schools perform far better than charter schools. 

It is strange to read, with this in mind, this boosterish copy from the Partnership for Learning: “When public charter school policies are crafted carefully and systems are designed to support the new schools, public charter schools are capable of outperforming traditional public schools in meeting the needs of struggling students.”

Because of course, per Stanford, the converse is more likely to be true, and by a wide margin: “When traditional public school policies are crafted carefully and systems are designed to support them, traditional public schools are capable of outperforming charter schools in meeting the needs of struggling students.” (A recent Washington State performance audit of public schools found they could be directing more money to classroom instruction than they do.) 

Charter schools in particular did not do well with minority students or high-school age students. Where they showed an advantage was with students in poverty, and with elementary and middle-school students. It is also true that the Stanford study authors argue that these best-performing charters were in states that had no caps on charter schools, where 1240 does cap schools at 40 before they are evaluated.

You might still think charter schools effective for other reasons — notably, that they have already prompted the birth of 22 innovation schools. Even the threat of competition seems to work. On their own merits, the picture is cloudier.

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9 thoughts on “What charter school initiative 1240 means for Capitol Hill kids

  1. Charter schools cannot help but siphon off money which would otherwise go to established, “regular” public schools. The latter’s budgets are already stressed by the decreasing amount of money allocated by Olympia. Why would we make a bad situation worse?

  2. This is the best articile on this complicated subject, and without a bias, too. I voted no. Savvy parents will always advocate for their children and their children’s education. But there are a lot of parents, for whatever reasons, who will not be able to navigate around the charter school process for their children. Charter schools might help one’s own child, but it’s at the expensive of the greater community. Charter schools don’t help MOST children. So I voted no.

  3. Lucid and balanced – the best explanation that I have read of how this initiative will work. Hard to believe this is a neighborhood blog post! Thank you for writing it.

  4. Thank you for bringing up the important issue again. I want to clarify, that the state commission by itself could and would if 1240 passes approve a charter school in any district, and that school will then have access to the local capital and operational levy funds. Any of the conversion schools would be approved by the state commission. The school board does not oversee or have control over the schools unless it is designated to be the overseer by the state commission.

    Support for the state commission will also cost $3 million annually.

    Remember too, that the Superintendent of Public Instruction (the elected official to oversee education in our state)is not in the loop. The initiative also states that the commission must be made of people who are pro charter schools.

  5. Charter schools, especially the few that have the higher test scores, have a record of high attrition of both students and teachers. Think about it especially in terms of the students. The students who are not performing well are encouraged to leave. The charter school has no mandate to educate all students that arrive there. They are not by area. Families have to apply and are chosen by lottery and then the school can place requirements on families or find other ways to discourage them from staying. Those students then return to the local assignment school.

    Charter schools also have a record of high teacher turnover. There are a number of reasons and I have run out of time here.

  6. Maybe the competition will make the district work a little harder at what they have? The district is a slow moving beaurocracy, maybe it’s time to shake it up a bit?

    I don’t get the funneling funds argument, aren’t they also funneling students? Shouldn’t this be a zero sum equation? I’m a product of Stevens, Meany, and Garfield. Would have loved another option, absolutely hated Garfield. Granted this was in the 80’s and thing might be better now, but then it was a pretty shitty place to go if you were just trying to get through and graduate. All I can say is thank god for Al Arians ad the graphic arts program that used to be there! Without it I definitely would have dropped out,

  7. Dear Friends & Neighbors,
    I urge you to join me in voting NO on I-1240, the charter schools initiative which is on the November 6 ballot, for the reasons outlined below.

    Please pass it on!

    My recommendation is to vote No on this flawed proposal which has been created and funded by a wealthy few, and whose core product is a very problematic concept with an extremely mixed track record.

    Even Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has admitted that charters have serious problems: (Duncan’s address to the National Charter Schools Conference, July 1, 2010.)

    Did you know that Initiative I-1240 has a “trigger” mechanism in it that allows as few as 51% of parents or teachers to convert an existing school into a charter? And this could happen in any kind of school, not just those that may be struggling. That means as many as 49% of parents (or teachers) could oppose this action but could not stop it.

    Did you know that if I-1240 passes, a separate, new Charter Commission will be created to oversee the charter process, comprised of unelected political appointees who would have with no direct accountability to voters? Our existing elected school board would not have oversight of these charter schools.

    This commission would cost an estimated $3 million to create — extra, costly bureaucracy which we cannot afford in these economically lean times.

    I-1240 is not an organic, grassroots, effort with wide community support. Instead, it is bankrolled by a small group of wealthy political and business interests who paid about $2 million to get it on the ballot and have spent upwards of $10 million on it…
    read more
    far. A number of these investors are not even from our state. (See: THE CHARTER PUSHERS: WHO IS BANKROLLING THE $8 MILLION EFFORT TO BRING CHARTERS TO WASHINGTON STATE?)

    Washington voters have already said NO 3 times to privatizing public education via charters, and for good reason. This is an unnecessary diversion of attention and resources.

    There are many troubling problems associated with charters — lack of public accountability or oversight, they are re-segregating our schools, they have selective enrollment, high attrition rates, lack of service for children with special needs, plus they simply are statistically no better than genuinely public schools.

    In fact, 83 percent are no better, or are worse. See the 2009 CREDO Report by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes. It is the most comprehensive, peer-reviewed study of charter schools to date, and it was even funded by charter supporters, such as the Walton family, of Wal-Mart fame. Yet the results were not impressive for charters. It’s been a pretty damning study for their cause.

    (I wrote about this here: The Pillars of Education Reform are Toppling, for Seattle Education 2010 and the Huffington Post.)

    And take a look at the long list of community groups and organizations who oppose I-1240 versus the small group of business and political entities that support it: No on 1240 Tent vs Yes on 1240 Tent

    Those who oppose it include most all the local Democratic clubs, the League of Women Voters, the NAACP, community groups like El Centro de la Raza, the WA State PTA and Parents Across America.

    Those who support it include political, ed reform and business groups, a number of them financially connected to the Gates Foundation (which, unfortunately, supports privatization of public ed, increased testing and other damaging “reforms”). Here’s their list: League of Education Voters, Stand for Children (this is a political lobbying group that received $3.5 mil from Gates to set up shop in Seattle a few years ago), (so-called) Democrats for Ed Reform, Washington State Roundtable, Seattle Chamber of Commerce Association of Washington Business.

    These groups do not represent public school families.

    Already our state ranks near the bottom of all 50 states in per-pupil funding. We cannot afford to divert any of our already limited funds to charter schools with limited oversight that will serve only some children.

    We need to remain focused on our existing schools and invest in them, not divert scarce resources to charter management companies and multimillion-dollar franchises like KIPP, Inc., Rocketship Education, Inc. or Green Dot, Inc. for less than a 1 in 5 chance of a better outcome for only a few students.

    Let’s give all our schools and all our children the resources and creative autonomy they all need and deserve for a rich learning experience — and not limit creative and academic freedom to just a few lucky lottery winners.

    For more information, please see:

    The inconvenient truth about charter school Initiative 1240Say NO to the Charter Schools Initiative
    GUEST COLUMN | Sen. Kohl-Welles on charter schools (Queen Anne & Magnolia News)
    No on I-1240
    People for Our Public Schools
    NO on 1240 – https://www.facebook.com/NoChartersWA
    Charter School Scandals

    Charter schools
    Choice Without Equity: Charter School Segregation and the Need for Civil Rights Standards
    Organizations and individuals against charter school Initiative 1240-Join the ranks!
    • Washington State PTA
    • League of Women Voters
    * State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Randy Dorn
    • WASA – Washington Association of School Administrators
    • WSSDA – Washington State School Directors Association Board
    • Washington Education Association
    Seattle School Superintendent Jose Banda
    * Renton School Board
    * Seattle Public School Board
    * Eatonville School Board
    * Evergreen School Board
    * Franklin Pierce School Board
    * Goldendale School Board
    * Moses Lake School Board
    * Onion Creek School Board
    • Educational Service District 113
    * Riverview School Board, serving Carnation, Duvall and parts of unincorporated East King County.
    * Renton School District
    * Superintendent of Seattle Public Schools, Jose Banda
    • Japanese-American Citizens League Board
    • Seattle-King County NAACP
    • El Centro de la Raza
    • Parents and Friends for Tacoma Public Schools
    • Parents Across America – Seattle chapter
    * Parents Across America- Tri-Cities chapter
    * Parents Across America-Tacoma chapter
    * Parents Across America- Spokane chapter
    * Senator Adam Kline
    • 1st District Democrats
    • 5th District Democrats
    * 10th District Democrats
    • 11th District Democrats
    * 21st District Democrats
    • 22nd District Democrats
    * 23rd District Democrats
    * 27th District Democrats
    • 32nd District Democrats
    • 33rd District Democrats
    • 34th District Democrats
    • 36th District Democrats
    • 37th District Democrats
    * 39th District Democrats
    * 40th District Democrats
    • 41st District Democrats
    • 43rd District Democrats
    • 45th District Democrats
    • 46th District Democrats
    • 48th District Democrats
    • King County Democrats
    * Lewis Country Democrats
    * Mason County Democrats
    • Pierce County Democrats
    * Skagit County Democrats
    * Whatcom County Democrats
    • Metropolitan Democratic Club of Seattle
    * Kristine Lytton State Rep.40th District
    • Citizens United for Responsible Education
    • IUOE Local 609 (Operating Engineers)
    • Association of Washington School Principals
    • Northwest Progressive Institute
    • UW Alumni Assn. Multicultural Alumni Partnership Board
    * The Seattle Stranger
    • Wayne Au, PhD in education, parent, and editor of Rethinking Schools
    • James Bible, President, Seattle-King County chapter of NAACP
    • Scott Heinze (Tacoma School Board Director)
    • Charlie Mas, Seattle Schools Community Forum blog
    • Barbara de Michele,former School Board member, Issaquah School District
    • Sue Peters, Seattle Education blog
    • John Stokes, Bellevue
    City Council member
    • Melissa Westbrook, Seattle Schools Community Forum Blog

    Thanks, & remember to vote!


    Sue Peters

    Seattle public schools parent
    Co-founding editor, Seattle Education Blog
    Founding member, Parents Across America
    Contributing writer, the Huffington Post

  8. Good question. It’s only zero sum at the school level, not at the student level, as you point out.

    It’s just that there are fixed costs that go with running a school that aren’t dependent on the precise number of students. A school of 300 students might have a principal and vice-principal, so would a school of 400 students. Two buildings have more operational costs than one building. Unless it’s a trade straight-across (close an existing school, open a charter school), those fixed costs may or may not be covered by any per-student allocation.

    Charter schools elsewhere have ended up with less money to work with than existing schools–they’re supposed to be leaner, after all. But search on “charter school bankruptcy” and you’ll see that there’s a limit to how low they can go.

    In Seattle, says a state audit of education expenses, about 59% of the $9,000+ spent on each student goes toward classroom instruction. (That’s actually low, and should be a bit higher.) But it gives you an idea of the latitude there is in settling on a literal per-student instruction allocation (1240 doesn’t specify a dollar amount) and allowing for operational overhead.

    If you accept that the current schools are underfunded, then the only solution that makes fiscal sense in adding new charter schools to the mix is if a) they do end up closing down existing public schools, or b) there’s an infusion of revenue proportionate to the added number of schools.