Are charter schools worth it? Voters will decide

Are charter schools worth it? Voters will decide
SEATTLE (AP) - Washington's voters will in November again decide whether to allow charter schools in Washington, after having rejected similar proposals in 1995, 2000 and 2004.

The debate over this year's charter schools initiative mostly comes down to speculation.

The writers of the ballot measure that would allow the independent public schools to get a foothold in Washington state say they designed their proposal to create the best charter school system in the nation. The proposal would open as many as 40 charter schools over five years, they say, and would offer hope for struggling kids and their families.

Opponents say there are loopholes that should scare voters. They note that charter schools have a mixed track record in other states and there are no guarantees that the ones that open here would be successful. They also worry that charters will take money away from regular public schools, which are already suffering from years of state budget cuts.

Mike Bernard, an accountant and business owner from Bellevue, says his analysis led him to change his mind about charter schools since his days on the Issaquah School Board in the 1990s.

"If you spend any time at all working in schools, you realize how little changes, and how any opportunity to shake the system is probably a good thing," Bernard said.

He doesn't expect that charter schools would offer answers to all the problems in Washington public schools, but he thinks it would be silly not to give them a chance.

"I see very little downside and some good will certainly come of it," he said.

Others find a very big downside to the charter schools proposal: the possibility that it could take money away from a struggling school district if students migrate to the new schools, said Kathleen Smith, a registered nurse who is taking a break from hospital work to raise her two kids who are students in Seattle Public Schools.

Her daughter's eighth-grade teacher told her there were no science textbooks available for her students. She has seen kids who need extra help to keep them from falling through the cracks. And when the school had to choose between a nurse and a math specialist, they were forced to choose a nurse because health problems could put all students at risk.

"I see such great need and they're putting money into reform efforts," Smith said.

Proponents of the initiative say charter schools offer options for people who are frustrated with regular public schools. Unfortunately, research on the effectiveness of charter schools is not clear.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools says there have been as many as 200 studies of charter school effectiveness, but only a handful used high-quality, scientific methods. Some of those studies, however, showed charter schools were effective at helping low-income students do better.

Researchers at the University of Washington's Center on Reinventing Public Education distrust any study that does not compare charter students with their counterparts in a nearby district school.

UW researchers say that a review of the studies like this show ample evidence that charter elementary schools on average modestly outperform traditional public schools in both reading and math, and that charter middle schools do slightly better in math. Urban charters have better success rates than suburban or rural schools, they reported in a research brief on charter school achievement. Research has found no improvement in high school.

But when research focuses on just one charter school or just one charter management organization, the results can be more dramatic for a much smaller group of children.

Students at California-based KIPP Public Charter Schools, for example, have shown statistically significant improvement in reading and math over a one-year period.

Smaller, targeted studies don't always offer good news for charters. Researchers have documented poor results in Ohio and North Carolina and good results in Idaho, Massachusetts, New York and Delaware, the University of Washington researchers said.

Discussion of this initiative has wandered down a few unexpected alleyways. The following questions cannot really be answered until the initiative is put to the test in the real world:

Is there a parent trigger in the initiative that would allow parents to replace a successful public school with an independent charter school? It depends on how you interpret one section of the proposal, which was not designed to be a parent trigger. It would take some legal maneuvering and a little bit of nefarious intent to make this happen.

Could charter organizations bring in outside for-profit companies to run their schools and make money off Washington's school children? Lots of corporations already make money off public schools, including book publishers, computer makers and educational software developers. The initiative says only nonprofit organizations could run charter schools in Washington state. Opponents fear for-profit subcontractors.