Summary: While the Seattle School Board votes to fight a zoning waiver for a new Green Dot charter high school, the Board members seem to ignore complex forces gathering at their door.
Headlines in the Seattle Times proclaim that the Seattle School Board will fight a zoning waiver that would allow Green Dot charter schools to build a new high school in an area where it would draw against public high schools Rainier Beach, Franklin, and Cleveland.
The Board clearly has an eye on well publicized debacles in cities like Newark and Detroit in which a rapid proliferation of charter schools has siphoned students and hence funding from mainline public schools and shaken the financial foundation of their school districts by leaving too many public schools open for too few students. Other reported characteristics of charters, such as a pressured culture, or staff turnover, clearly beg monitor as well.
On the other hand, there are examples of charter school networks elsewhere, such as in Denver, that appear to have contributed to if not led the charge for improved results on test scores and graduation rates, and charter networks such as KIPP and Success Academy in New York City, that have achieved results that compel attention. Moreover, the latest (2013) iteration of the Stanford CREDO charter school study states unequivocally that charters taken as a whole now outperform the composite group of traditional public schools by a significant measure; the results are even more profound for low income kids of color.
All is not well, nonetheless, in charter land. Results for a significant cadre of charters argue for closure; of course, the same can be said for a chunk of traditional public schools, often urban.
The Seattle School Board in its action, from the perspective of numerous cities through the nation, appears to be sticking its head in the sand while forces coalesce beyond its apparent awareness. By contrast Spokane’s school board has itself authorized charters and in doing so have demonstrated a readiness to experiment. The moral may well prove to be that it is best to get ahead of and manage these forces, rather than to assume to ignore it is make it go away.
Like it or not, charter schools are gaining momentum at various points across the continent, and their adherents, often of the financial angel type, are not the type of people to go away quietly.
The Knowledge is Power (KIPP) network, Success Academies in New York City, and the Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST) in Denver, all charter networks, have contributions by wealthy philanthropists behind them. There are similar players lurking in Seattle’s own bailiwick. Contemplate, for example, the donation of $190,000 by Seattle’s very own Gates Foundation and companion funding by the conservative Walton Foundation to the Center for Re-Invention of Education at the University of Washington, which promotes “school options,” code word for inclusion of charter schools as a remedy to stagnant school reform.
Such financial angels, often located around the action in charter schools, in their outlook represent a distinctly market oriented philosophy that demands scrutiny, not because such philosophy cannot contribute ideas and even a shock to stagnant public systems, but because there are ample questions whether the unregulated guidance that gives us capitalism in the raw, including income inequality, should have an unfettered hand in its influence around our schools.
May the public be spared a choice between angels loosely tethered to the purview of the voter and urban public schools that can seem to generate at best glacial change.
The state of Washington, though behind the curve in charter experiments, has wisely chosen to authorize by statute only forty charters over a five year period in order to avoid the kind of inundation crisis experienced by some urban districts in other states.
I am betting that charters will continue to make gradual inroads in Washington State, which could be a good thing, depending on how decision makers mold the challenge, including the continuing struggle around funding for charter schools.