Continuing a trend begun in March 2020, when Northshore School District was the first public school district in the nation to close its doors due to Covid-19, Washington K-12 public schools are shuttering yet again — much to the dismay of most parents, who expect their taxes to provide 180 days of in-person education and supervision for their children. Other states have figured out a way to keep both public and private schools safely open, avoiding the disruptions to learning caused by the closures. In fact, Washington places 48 among states providing in-person learning, trailing only California and Hawaii for this dubious distinction.
No wonder Washington parents by the droves have pulled out of the state’s traditional K-12 public schools. Across the state, public schools lost nearly 38,000 students (3.5 percent) from fall 2019 to fall 2021. The worst enrollment declines were experienced in the Evergreen, Bellevue, Issaquah, Kent, Federal Way, Seattle, Shoreline, and Spokane school districts, ranging from 5.5 percent to a staggering 8.1 percent.
Historically, Washington has been slow to adopt creative alternative education options. Charter schools are a prime example, as Washington was the 42nd state to sign charter schools into law.
What makes charter schools different (and highly attractive to many parents) is these tuition-free public schools are uninhibited by many of the rules and regulations that hinder traditional public schools while remaining highly accountable for student results. Their increased flexibility provides critics’ rationale for the higher financial, managerial, and student achievement accountability requirements. In Washington, all charter schools are operated as nonprofit organizations. And, contrary to what is sometimes argued, charter schools do not take money away from public schools since they are public schools themselves.
Almost immediately from inception, several but not all Washington charter schools achieved positive impacts, including increased learning translating to “as much as 165 and 189 more days of learning in reading and math respectively, compared to the learning they would have realized in traditional public schools.”
Perhaps surprisingly, given Washington’s slow adoption of charter schools and the state’s ongoing resistance to the schools, according to a 2020 report, charter school laws in Washington rank number three in the nation among 45 states. But the report identified two major weaknesses of Washington’s charter school statutes: its cap of 40 charter schools during the initial five years that it is in effect and “inequitable funding for public charter school students.”
No longer is the promotion of school choice solely a Republican-driven priority. Democrats, too, have become fed up with the extended school closures and subpar academic performance of traditional public schools and are now increasing their support for education initiatives that place power with parents.
Currently, House Bills 1591 and 1962, which address the two major weaknesses in Washington’s charter school laws, have moved to committee. And, interestingly, these bills are sponsored largely by Democrats (HB 1591 is sponsored by 11 Democrats and six Republicans, while HB 1962 is sponsored by eight Democrats and two Republicans).
HB 1591 would allow charter public schools to receive the same level of funding as traditional public schools by allowing levy equalization funding. A much-needed correction, as charter schools often serve students with the greatest learning challenges, particularly among low-income, minority, and immigrant families.
HB 1962 extends the “time frame for the establishment of charter schools.” The bill recognizes that charter schools provide educational “opportunities for communities that have not always been well-served by traditional public schools.” Since the five-year window for establishing new charter schools commenced in April 2016, only 24 charter public schools have been formed. The law allowed for up to 40 total — thus, given additional time, more schools could be created, serving thousands of students.
Adding new charter schools and providing them equal funding would be a move in the right direction — giving families solid alternatives to Washington’s traditional public schools. Let’s champion efforts that recognize parents are the customers and increase competition, which improves performance. Nothing could be more important to the future of our state.