When a judge gave Washington State’s charter school supporters the green light to begin collecting signatures for a new ballot initiative, many were optimistic, even confident, about their chances of success. Although they had just twenty-one days to collect 241,153 valid signatures to put Initiative 1240, which would allow charter schools to be established in a state that has none, on November’s ballot, recent polls had shown that 60 percent of Washington voters supported allowing charter schools in the state. The initiative’s backers were also prepared and able to pay people to gather signatures, due to significant financial support from some extremely wealthy individuals.
Washington state lawmakers had proposed a bill to allow charters in the state during the legislative session. But it failed, so supporters opted for a different route: Washington’s ballot initiative process, where if a sufficient number of valid signatures in support of a proposed law are gathered, citizens vote directly on whether it will pass.
By the time the July 6 deadline rolled around, Yes on 1240, the coalition backing the initiative, had raised more than $2.25 million in cash contributions, much of which came from Bill Gates, Jackie and Mike Bezos (parents of Amazon founder Jeff), and a few other individuals. It spent nearly as much—at least $2.19 million—on “Petition Services” from PCI Consultants, Inc., according to public records. Using both paid and volunteer signature gatherers, Yes on 1240 collected enough to earn the initiative a place on November’s ballot and to reignite a heated controversy that reflects an ongoing national debate not just over the role of charters in education reform but also about the spending of public resources in the United States.
The first public charter school opened in Minnesota in 1992. Today more than 2 million K-12 students attend 5,611 charters throughout the United States, and those numbers are steadily growing. Publicly funded but privately operated, charters are granted more autonomy than traditional public schools, particularly in decisions over curriculum and the hiring and firing of teachers. In return they are held to higher standards of accountability and performance, though critics say that in reality, data on charter school performance is often inadequate and when charter schools are found to perform poorly, closing them is a challenging process with many legal and logistical obstacles. Any student may attend a charter, although if demand exceeds availability, a lottery determines which students enroll. Despite the private entities that oversee and manage them, charters are labeled as public because they receive government funding.
This November, voters in Georgia, where charters are already permitted, will decide on a constitutional amendment that would redefine who can approve and fund charters in the state. The amendment would allow the Georgia Charter School Commission to authorize charters. In so doing, the commission would be able to override the decisions of local school districts that rejected charter applications. Approved charters could cost roughly $430 million in state funds over the next five years. That matter is particularly contentious because the budget for Georgia’s public schools has been cut by $4 billion in the last four years.
Should either of the proposals in Washington or Georgia pass, “that’ll be the first time that charter schools have won at the ballot box,” says Todd Ziebarth, senior vice president for state advocacy and support at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “It’ll be a significant marking in the evolution of the movement.”
No Silver Bullet
Opposition to Washington’s initiative coalesced under the banners No on 1240 and People for Our Public Schools. Their members—including parents, teachers, administrators, elected officials and community and labor organizations—are fiercely critical of the initiative, which they say does not guarantee sufficient parental involvement in charters and whose “trigger” law would too easily allow an existing traditional public school to be converted into a charter. They also say that the initiative itself has been bolstered by pro-charter groups outside the state and condemn the Yes coalition’s paid signature-gatherers as a violation of the spirit of the initiative process.
“It undermines the whole reason to have an initiative process,” which should be “a grassroots effort,” says Melissa Westbrook, chair of the No on 1240 campaign. Several parents who also oppose Initiative 1240 agree, suggesting that signatures gathered with such financial support do not accurately represent popular desire for charter schools in Washington. In February, a poll conducted by the Washington Policy Center found that a majority of voters supported allowing charters, but the results have been criticized as skewed because of the poll’s wording and because the Washington Policy Center is a conservative think tank whose education center director is among those listed as Yes on 1240’s supporters.
Indeed, voters have rejected charter school initiatives twice before, in 1996 and 2000, and voted in 2004 to overturn a charter law passed by the legislature that year. And charter opponents are correct in alleging that an outside organization, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, was involved in Washington’s initiative. “When we saw that folks were working on this,” says Ziebarth, “we reach[ed] out to them” to share model legislation and other data.
Westbrook argues that the rise in charters throughout the country—forty-one states and the District of Columbia currently have them—has pressured Washington State to jump on the bandwagon. She remains adamant, however, that charter schools will not fix Washington’s public education woes, including severely underfunded public schools. Instead, it would “thin the pot of money,” she says.
Shannon Campion, spokesperson for Yes on 1240 and the executive director of Stand for Children in Washington, would beg to differ. She counters that funding is not an issue, because when a student changes from one public school to another, public charters included, funding follows the student. She also dismisses the critique that a few individuals, rather than a grassroots movement, bankrolled Initiative 1240. “It’s not a problem,” she says of the money donated by Gates and others. “Is it a problem that Bill Gates is trying to cure malaria, and putting millions of dollars into that?” Her hunch is that “it’s driven by their desire to see a proven solution work in our state for the 14,000 kids a year who drop out of high school.”
Yet data on charters’ effectiveness in improving student performance are far from consistent. The CREDO study conducted by Stanford University found that 17 percent of charters did better than their traditional public counterparts, nearly half did neither better nor worse, and 37 percent did “significantly worse.” Another study, published by Mathematica, found that in comparison to traditional public schools, charter schools serving low-income and low-achieving students had a positive impact on students’ math test scores. But charter schools serving students with higher incomes had a negative effect on their scores. A “footnote on the successes of those models” must be added, says Dr. Gary Miron, a professor of education at Western Michigan University who has spent decades researching and evaluating school reform policies in the United States and Europe. Typical of successful urban college prep schools serving at-risk students is that they do “a phenomenal job with the students that persist,” he explains, but these schools also tend to have high attrition rates and actually benefit “from low-performing students’ leaving school.”
On the opposite coast, in Georgia, sparring on local news sites and blogs ranges from disagreement over local versus state control of charter school authorization to disputes over funding being diverted from an ailing public school system to companies hoping to turn a profit. As the Teaching Georgia Writing Collective, a group of teachers, educators and citizens who teach and write publicly about education in Georgia, has written, charters have become “a political battleground where money takes precedent over education.”
In 2011, Georgia’s Supreme Court ruled that the Georgia Charter School Commission (GCSC) had violated the state constitution, which gives control of general K-12 public schools to local school districts. Although the GCSC was permitted to authorize “special schools,” the court found that general public charter schools rejected by local districts had then been authorized by the GCSC under the guise of “special” schools. If the amendment passes, the GCSC will be able to approve not just “special” schools but general ones too.
Although Governor Nathan Deal backs the proposed amendment, Georgia’s superintendent of schools, John Barge, does not. Not only would it take away local control of schools while creating “a new and costly state bureaucracy,” Barge said in a press release, but it would also “direct taxpayer dollars into the pockets of out-of-state, for-profit charter school companies.” The Teaching Georgia Writing Collective argued that the amendment would devastate Georgia’s public education system by opening it “to a stampede of charter school corporations and real estate brokers who see this bill as a cash cow.”
By contrast, Virginia Galloway, state director of the Georgia group Americans for Prosperity, considers charters “the epitome of small government” and has called existing traditional public schools “a bureaucratic nightmare.”
“It’s critical for Georgia to get that amendment passed,” says Ziebarth. “Without that check and balance of the commission on school boards, you’re likely to see the charter sector wither in Georgia and die.”
Miron takes a longer and broader view than those embroiled in the ongoing charter debate. “I think there’s a shift in thinking in America…on what’s public and what’s private,” he says. “The new tendency is for policymakers and to some extent the public to accept that a school can be public even if it’s privately owned, as long as it is publicly funded and pursuing publicly stated goals.”
The Evolution of a Vision
One of the original missions for charters was for them to experiment with different approaches to education and share successful findings with other schools. Whether they fulfill that mission today is hotly contested. “There’s a level of flexibility in public charter schools for teachers and principals that you don’t see in traditional public schools,” Campion argues. “Public charter schools are cracking the code in how to serve at-risk and struggling students.”
Critics disagree. “The way charter schools have evolved to be what they are, which is much more of a business or a franchising system, I don’t like that,” says Sandi Strong, a parent from Tacoma, Washington, who opposes Initiative 1240. Instead of sharing successful methods with public schools, “charter management organizations…are saying, we’ll bring those tools to you but you need to use our entire package, and you’ll have to pay us.”
“We’ve gone away from the charter school idea,” agrees Miron. He initially supported the idea of charters as locally run and highly accountable schools with unique educational missions but said that charter reform has completely shifted. “Now we’re getting private networks of charter schools sometimes run halfway across the country. They’re anything but locally run.” His research has led him to believe that “charter schools can work, but on the whole, they’re not.”
As of October 28, Yes on 1240 had raised more than $10.8 million dollars and spent at least $2.5 million on TV, internet and radio advertising. Although the direct outcome of this money remains uncertain until after November 6, charter advocates and opponents can agree on at least one thing. Charters have become “part of the fabric of our public education system,” says Campion.
“They’re just part of the norm now,” echoes Strong. “Now it’s a matter of another situation where there are problems within the schools…whether it’s the public schools or the charter schools.”