Why I'll Be Voting Against Charter Schools (I-1240) In Washington State

This year, like in many previous years, Washington State voters will again have the opportunity to vote for or against legalizing charter schools in our state. Initiative 1240 would allow non-profit (for-profit charter managers would not be permitted) to open eight charter schools per year in WA over the next five years.

Before I outline my reasons for voting against this measure, I'd first like to say three things:

1) I am more than a little frustrated about living in a society that puts up with so much callow and unsophisticated public debate. Opponents of charter schools routinely make blanket statements associating their supporters with greedy corporate robots. On the other side, supporters accuse opponents of being obstructionist teachers union activists who will have nothing to do with anything except the mediocre status quo because it helps them hold onto their jobs and insurance.

Quick lesson for both sides: the degree of nuance and complexity in issues like this render black and white assessments and blanket statements of either side juvenile, and they ultimately do great harm to what might otherwise be mature and purposeful public discourse.

2) Voting yes or no on charters as if they were all the same kind of school is not really a fair proposition. While I appreciate the efforts in I-1240 to be cautious of falling into the pitfalls that other states (like Arizona and Ohio) have fallen into in establishing laws for charter school openings, the initiative still leaves a great deal of room for various forms of charter schools to open, from which charter schools of wide degrees of quality will undoubtedly be formed.

3) The question I use to decide whether charter schools would be good for our state is: are they good for democracy? Teachers United, a small group of teachers in the Seattle area run by former charter school teacher, Chris Eide, recently announced its members' support of charter schools after conducting a study on them while considering the question, "What's best for students?" Great question, but not one that works for me on this issue. Why not? Am I anti-student? No. I recognize that students are not a monolith. Charters will be neither "good" nor "bad" for "students." This issue just can't exist in that degree of black or whiteness. Charters will affect some students in some ways, other students in others, and still others in others. Okay, I think you get it; I'll move on.

Let's see if I can avoid falling into the group of people I criticized above and provide an intelligent analysis of what I fear charters' negative effects would be on democracy in our state.

My main point to charter school supporters is this: If the purpose of charter schools is to exist outside particular rules and regulations we believe harm students' learning in traditional public schools, why are we proposing that only forty schools over the next five years should be allowed to exist outside harmful rules and regulations? Why not rid all schools of them?

On this point, it seems to me that support for charter schools must be indicative of one's disillusionment with democracy, and I can understand that. It's a fair perspective to have.You notice your neighborhood school isn't doing so well. You start calling the principal, and maybe talking to the newspaper, but nothing changes. People around you do the same thing, but soon they give up and just move so they can send their children to different schools in different districts. You think, why not open another school in the community where I can send my kid without having to relocate? People have tried solving this problem, and it hasn't worked. We just need a new school. Answer = charter schools.

When we get here, we've essentially given up on the democratic process. I would much prefer rethinking the way our local and state democracies consider public input and evaluate school quality, because if we don't, we will continue to shortchange the families who lack the educational and social capital and time to advocate for their students' interests.

This already happens at many schools in the state, like mine. I work at a small school on a campus with two other small schools. One of those two small schools is a school of choice. Parents write essays explaining why their child would be a good fit for the school, and students who don't fare well there are encouraged to try one of the other two small schools on the campus, thus giving up on what should be their mission: public education.

While I-1240 doesn't allow charter schools to deny students entrance when they're under-enrolled, they can have a lottery when a larger number of students than they can handle apply. And as soon as a school gets a reputation for being an excellent school, and everyone wants to enroll, it's essentially a self-fulfilling prophecy. You see, one of the very important factors in a child's education is the peers they go to school with. And one of the other very important factors in a child's education is the parents' educational and social capital. When children whose parents are all strong advocates for their child's education begin scrambling to be in the same school because they've heard it's a good school, you can bet that it's going to be a good school, whether that pre-existing reputation was fair or not. And this brings us to another less-than-savory effect of charters: school advertising.

As more charters begin to pop up (and I-1240 would take public money from school districts and give them to charter operators, dollar for dollar - NOT equitable), schools will be pressured to improve their reputation through advertising. Thinking about how to advertise and sell your school takes valuable time and resources away from excellent instruction. It also forces you to think about who you want your advertising to target, which is in direct opposition to the notion of public education - we're supposed to take every child.

Despite laws, charters in many states do an excellent job of avoiding students who are difficult to educate because they make it more difficult to produce the statistics the state evaluates a school with. We run the risk of further relegating (because they already are) English-language learners, special education students, and students with behavioral issues to one kind of school, and more "traditional" kinds of students to another.

As this exquisite article from 1996 points out, charters are one more way of severing the ties that bind us. I have no doubt that some charters will improve educational outcomes for some students. The questions that worry me, and are ultimately what will have me voting NO on I-1240, are: which students? and at what cost?

While it would make me vomit to tell a mother of a student stuck in an under-performing school she should sacrifice her student for my principles and wait for our state to get its act together with education (which is why I think it's in all of our best interest to have a healthy sense of ambivalence on tough issues like this); ultimately I don't think we make our democracy more purposeful and our society healthier by looking for ways to bypass tough public decisions in favor of easy private ones. We'll make improvements by making equity our paramount duty, and always asking: how will this improve our democracy?


  1. I've seen some of this in my part of Indiana...public schools have started spending some of their budget on advertising. I get very upset when I see it...I know that something else is being neglected. Just one more reason that the "business model" doesn't work for schools.

    1. Absolutely, Stu. I just saw an advertisement for the school I referenced in the post today. It's really fancy and appealing, and in the more affluent part of our district. My school doesn't have any fancy flyers like I saw today. And we're not targeting students from the affluent part of the district...

  2. I am a former MS/HS teacher, now heading into PhD work. I taught in Charter schools here in OH and I can say there is nothing I'd like more than to see them shut down. I also currently am trying to get out of my final one class a term adjunct position with a proprietary college. Profit and education are NOT good bedfellows.

  3. Charter schools have changed the traditional thinking on education. We have needed a change for a long time. Charter schools are just the first step in the process. There are still many more changes to be made. Charter schools are providing the model for change. Teachers, parents and community member are joining together to make these improvements. It has been a long time coming. I do not think it will end with charter schools. We still have a lot of things we can do to make education better in this country. Charter schools are leading the charge.


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