Grading The Charter School Claims

Oct 23, 2012

This fall, voters in Washington will decide whether to legalize charter schools in the state for the first time. Washington voters have considered charters three times before. But the details of charter school funding, oversight and independence can be confusing. So we took a red pen to claims by supporters and opponents of Initiative 1240, and gave each claim a grade to see who gets to go to the head of the class – and who needs to go back and check their work.

First, the basics:

I-1240 would allow up to 40 charter schools in Washington over five years. Charters could be started two different ways. A secular, non-profit organization could propose an idea for a charter school to a charter "authorizer." That authorizer could be either a new state agency, or a local school board.

Parents at an existing public school could also vote to turn it into a charter.

Here’s our first claim, from Yes on 1240 spokeswoman Shannon Campion's appearance on KUOW’s The Conversation.

CLAIM: "Charter schools are public schools. This is a really important point. These are public schools serving public school students."

GRADE: B

Charter schools would be publicly-funded, and free to attend. They’d have government oversight, but they’d be run by private organizations that could outsource most jobs in the school to for-profit companies. That’s why charter opponents claim that I-1240 would be a step toward "privatizing" public education.

Next up, this claim from a Yes on 1240 campaign ad.

CLAIM: "Charter schools have a proven track record of helping students who aren't succeeding in traditional schools."

GRADE: C 

The largest-ever study on charter school performance came from Stanford University.

It found that English Language Learners did better at charter schools. And students in poverty did slightly better at charters.

Special education students did equally well at charters and traditional public schools.

But black and Hispanic students tended to do considerably worse at charters. That’s troubling, because the four-year graduation rate for both black and Hispanic students in Washington is just 65 percent. That’s far below the graduation rates for white and Asian students.

There’s another problem with measuring success at charters: some of the top charter schools also have high student attrition rates. So students who are not succeeding in those schools may just leave.

For our next claim, here’s charter opponent Mark Mains speaking on KUOW’s The Conversation.

Mains teaches third grade at Odyssey Elementary School in Everett.

CLAIM: "Charter schools will drain millions of dollars from what are already chronically underfunded schools here."

GRADE: A

Even though school districts wouldn’t be responsible for educating charter students, they’d still have some financial liability. For instance, a public school converted to a charter could stay in the same building without paying rent to the school district. The district would lose its use of the building. And it would still have to pay for major repairs and safety upgrades.

But the main drain of public money from school districts would be the funding that would follow each public school student to a charter. That’s about $10,000 per student each year. If 40 average-sized secondary schools were converted to charters, that would redirect huge amounts of public school funding to charters: As much as $350 million a year.

Now it’s up to Washington voters to decide if Initiative 1240 is worth it.