Charter Schools and Politics: Vote Yes on Washington State’s Initiative 1240

Summary: Arguments surround Washington’s proposed charter schools; in balance it is time for passage of I-1240.

November 6, 2012 is Election Day. Or, these days, the last day to vote. On the ballot in the state of Washington is Initiative 1240, which would establish up to forty charter schools in the state.

I support the initiative as creation of educational experiment in Washington State via a charter school framework. Properly set up, it will demonstrate in our front yard that certain schoolhouse practices, already suggested by experience in other more progressive places, hold potential to upgrade our state’s school and student performance.

Down the road (and perhaps in an ideal world), the more successful experiments will inform and reform practice in mainstream public schools.

The charter evidence so far is that we need more funding for more staffing and more time on task between teachers and students, most notably with our at risk populations. Note Roland Fryer’s dictum, taken from charter school successes elsewhere (see last week’s post, “The Stanford CREDO Study and Charter School Progress”) that instructional time needs to be increased from the current norm in the form of a longer school day, an extension of the school year, and the enhancement of tutoring opportunities for students.

I would argue that the other two of Fryer’s key ingredients, an upgrade of teacher competence via more full service supervision and the study of data to guide instruction may also require additional targeted funding, if it is to be done properly.

The citizen voter, hearing reference to money, understandably shakes the collective head, and screams “No!!!” And why should they send more money after what they see as bad, currently? We need to first demonstrate that certain expensive reforms will in fact breed the desired result.

Enter the successful Washington State charter school, which will eventually demonstrate what successful charter schools seem to be showing elsewhere, that enhanced monies, currently often from foundation sources as far as I can tell, targeted in specific ways, may raise student scores in reading, writing, and math – particularly for low income, African American, Latino, and Native American students. Special education and English Language Learners are special cases, but will also benefit.

There will still need to be a prodigious effort to link the newly minted research to enhanced public funding designed to spread the reforms beyond the charter universe and into traditional schoolhouses K-12. That will mean political action.

Whether in the current economic environment or in better economic times, such funding will be a hard sell, no matter that the voter wants good schools and it is the state’s primary responsibility by the state constitution to provide for them.

Here it is, the ugly little secret I hear no charter or other reform advocate broadcasting as of yet — there is no magic bullet that will reform traditional schools into more successful entities short of cash, albeit cash spent wisely.  But we have to begin somewhere, and charter schools can provide the rationale.

Vote yes on Initiative 1240, Washington State!

Opponents to Initiative 1240, which include a large proportion of the state’s educational establishment, from the state teachers’ union, to the state associations of school board directors, principals, and superintendents, and the state PTA, worry among other issues that charter schools will siphon money from already cash strapped schools. Organizational advocates for minority interests, specifically La Raza and the NAACP, are also opposed.

We see many schools striving with some desperation to maintain quality and to pursue mandated reform, with some hard won progress, in the face of continuing cuts to staff in tough economic times. Morale suffers in this environment, so it is to be expected that fears of additional de facto cuts via the charter route accentuate a broader anxiety. Change is harder to promote when the margin of survival feels slender.

But let’s look closely at one or two of the mechanisms involved in a transition to charter schools. Students who go from a traditional school to a charter school take their state funding with them, which leaves the original school with less state funding. It is true that fewer students in a given school building may leave it under capacity to some degree, while the building still needs to be heated and maintained, for example, at the same level.

However, a high proportion of funding for schools is tied up in teacher salaries and benefits. When the new charter students exit the old building, that institution would not be on the hook to pay the charter teacher salaries, which would diminish the impact of the loss of funding, it would seem to me, in that particular school.

It is true such a drain, depending how extensive, could be a blow to the interpersonal fabric of a school, from which it would have to recover.

In a separate concern, some opponents also worry that the section of Initiative 1240 that empowers authorizers to revoke a charter is too vague and therefore ineffectual. According to the Stanford CREDO study discussed in my last post, in other states one failure of the charter school movement has been the continued life of charters that perform below acceptable level.

In fact, on the human level, it has to be difficult to terminate a community of people such as a school. Despite statistical failure, there will be teachers committed to their immediate schools, and passionate loyalties on the part of parents and students to the institution of which they are intimate part. So, revocation could be bloody, and so has been avoided in other states, apparently.

In my reading, there is clear language enabling revocation of charters for poor performance. Though I cannot claim expertise on the matter, it seems to me that the failure would be with the political resolve, no matter how perfectly the enabling legislation might be.

But I am not persuaded in balance that these considerations are sufficient reason to not move forward with charters. There will be fiscal disruptions and school culture changes whenever charters are implemented. Revocation of charters remains a conundrum with which communities will have to struggle, but the general issue is clearly addressed in the initiative.

Moreover, my core argument is that quality charters, as they have in other states, will point the way to reforms in how we bring lagging groups of students into heightened academic achievement. Eventually, the economy will regain its vigor, and the state Supreme Court has already ordered the state to come up with more money to fund education, so we need to be ready with cogent argument as to how to utilize enhanced fiscal resources. Charters seem to me one focused way to develop that argument.

Vote yes on Washington State Initiative 1240!

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The bulk of the political commercial out of the way, for those wonkish types interested in further arcana of the charter school debate, the Stanford CREDO study (again, see last week’s post…… ) has some additional findings that have relevance for the construction of Washington State’s proposed charter framework. In this case the relevance is negative, which the state may need to review once it has more experience with charters.

The CREDO researchers re-aggregated their data to look at the effect of state level charter policies on the outcomes at the micro level, in schools.

Some states have established a cap on the total number of charter schools allowed. The CREDO study found that student test results were lower in charter schools in such states than were the test results of their counterparts in traditional public schools. That is, students in those states as a group had significantly lower scores (but not hugely lower) than they would have had were they in a state without limits on the number of charters.

Washington’s proposed law caps charters at 40 statewide, or new ones at a rate of eight every year, no doubt as a moderation to fears on the part of anti charter forces, and so would seem to walk right into a trap that will skew results to the negative.

The researchers are uncertain why such an effect occurred, but speculate that high quality successful potential operators may have reacted to the caps as a barrier to entry and taken their wares elsewhere.

Similarly, some state policies allow “multiple authorizers” of charter schools. “Authorizers” refers to those entities that have been granted authority to “authorize” a new charter school, which in Washington’s case would be a newly created state charter commission and local school boards (which would first have to be given the prerogative by the state commission). The CREDO study found that student test results were lower in charter schools in such states than were the test results of their counterparts in traditional public schools, and by a greater factor than in the case of the limits on the number of charters. By contrast, where the number of authorizers was limited, charter school students did relatively better than their traditional school counterparts. Clearly, Washington State appears on the path to multiple authorizers, and so has walked into a second trap that may skew results in an undesirable direction.

Again, the researchers are uncertain why this effect percolated through the data, other than to speculate that in a forest of multiple authorizers, potential charter operators would seek out the least restrictive contract, which may lead to less stellar results.

Finally and by contrast, the presence of a process through which charter operators or, presumably, potential charter operators, can appeal an authorizer’s decision, is shown by CREDO data to have a positive, upward influence on student results. I do not find an appeal process in Washington’s enabling initiative in a quick scan of the verbiage, but could have missed it, and so Washington’s effort would miss out on this relatively small statistical advantage.

CREDO researchers are vague about why such an effect would occur, but speculate that the possibility of appeal leverages closer scrutiny of charters in the first place, and so may send a message of greater accountability, and hence provide upward pressure on quality. But, one could fill in the blanks differently.

Given the attention proponents have given to charter schools over a number of years, it is surprising none of these policy issues were addressed by Washington’s initiative in observance of the CREDO findings.

The good news is that results shift in the contrary positive direction if policy is changed and caps are either eliminated or expanded greatly, and if the number of authorizers is restricted. I am unclear if this could be done legislatively, or would once again have to run through the initiative process.

Though disheartened a bit by this news, and hopeful that Washington will somehow avoid similar effects, it is still time to dip our toes in these waters, and learn as we go. Again, vote yes on Initiative 1240!

(In a near term post: more nuanced lessons from the CREDO study.)


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