Washington state, ahead of the national curve in so many areas of public policy, is a notable laggard on the issue of charter schools. Washington finally joined 41 other states and the District of Columbia in authorizing the schools last November, when voters narrowly approved Initiative 1240.
And a narrow victory it was. Voters statewide gave it a 50.69 percent yes vote, a victory margin of just over 40,000 votes out of more than 3 million cast. Yakima County’s approval percentage was only slightly better: 51.53 percent yes, or by about 2,300 votes out of approximately 75,000 cast. The vote was fairly evenly split in each of the state’s 39 counties, defying the east-west, rural-urban divide that defines most elections in Washington. The victory came after four defeats, the first in 1996.
A charter school is a public school that is open to all students but operates independently of district management and administrative rules. Initiative 1240 is a targeted approach, more of a pilot program, with tight guidelines and accountability measures. It allows for a maximum of eight schools a year to a total of 40 in the next five years — out of a statewide total of more than 2,300 public schools.
Nonprofit organizations or school district boards could set them up; there will be no religious charter schools. A new state agency, the Charter School Commission, is now accepting applications, and it stands to get at least two from the Yakima Valley.
One, from a group called Charter Schools of Sunnyside, last month held an informational meeting that attracted about 50 people, including 15th District state Rep. Bruce Chandler. A second group, the Yakima-based Cesar Chavez Charter School Foundation, would gear its dual-language curriculum toward Latino and migrant students. In addition, the West Valley School District is considering authorizing a charter school; under the initiative, school boards can convert a current school to a charter school or set up a new school, and the schools would receive an allocation of state funding based on their student enrollments.
Different approaches drive the two nonprofit proposals. The impetus for the Sunnyside group comes from a parent whose concern about the quality of local schools has prompted her to home-school her children. The Yakima school reflects a sense that public schools are not adequately educating students for whom English is a second language.
None of these is a done deal. The groups first must submit a letter of intent later this month, then submit an application to the Charter School Commission by Nov. 22. The West Valley district is merely discussing the idea; it hasn’t yet decided whether to follow through with an application. And with only eight schools per year authorized, competition is likely to be strong.
Local charter school advocates reflect grassroots concerns about whether local schools are addressing differing needs of particular students. As such, they could prove useful as laboratories for what works and what doesn’t. If they don’t work, there is a safeguard; the charter agreement between the operators and commission must be renewed every five years.
As of 2011, about 5,600 charter schools were operating nationwide; some are functioning well, and others are doing poorly. But this state’s tightly drawn law recognizes abuses in other states; one key to success will be the quality of oversight by the Charter School Commission, which benefits from having a low number of schools to police.
Charter schools aren’t a cure, but they are a tool. The key is assuring that the tool is well utilized.
• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Sharon J. Prill, Bob Crider, Frank Purdy and Karen Troianello.