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Charter schools battle skips South Whidbey
Washington state voters will have a fourth chance to cast their yeas and nays for a public charter school initiative this November.
The million-dollar battle has little support from Island County, however, and for good reason. Charter schools are not likely to find their way to Whidbey Island any time soon, even if the measure is passed.
The scaled-down version of the public charter school measure will allow up to 40 such schools in the state. Leaders in the South Whidbey School District think their problems of enrollment decline and funding decrease will likely keep any charter groups away from the South End.
“I would be very surprised if it did (impact the school district),” said Fred O’Neal, South Whidbey School Board member and its legislative representative. “We have a declining student enrollment as it is.”
“The problem on South Whidbey is making it (charter schools) financially viable. There just aren’t enough students.”
And if voters put their money where their mouths are, then the $0 contributed to either the “for” or “against” campaigns regarding Initiative 1240 says Island County voters don’t care. Why should they? A report by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools shows that rural area students are one of the smallest populations to attend charter schools, around 15 percent nationally and 37 percent in Oregon.
“It’s going to be fairly focused and limited in scope,” O’Neal said of I-1240. “It seems that the type of environments they’re talking about are better suited for bigger schools.”
Last year, District Superintendent Jo Moccia had district staff review U.S. Census data. She and the school board wanted to know if they were losing students to transfer, or if there were less students living on South Whidbey. They found a handful of students within the school district’s boundaries from Greenbank to Clinton transferred to other districts like Mukilteo, Coupeville or Oak Harbor. Some were home schooled, and others attended online school. But, compared to 10 years ago, there were just less school-age children living on South Whidbey.
O’Neal, who has pushed for South Whidbey to aggressively seek new education techniques, rejected the idea that larger school districts across the ferry route could pull students from the South End.
“It’s just so darned inconvenient and expensive to go to the other side,” O’Neal said.
Money has flowed for the public charter school fight. Charter schools are different from the current kindergarten through 12th grade, at least in the ways the initiative was worded, in that they would be organized and governed outside the authority of school districts. One group in support of I-1240, League of Education Voters, stated that charter schools will be subject to the same academic standards as public schools, but “are free from many other regulations so they have more flexibility to set curriculum and budgets, hire and fire teachers and staff and offer more customized learning experiences for students.” Charter schools would not have tuition, but would be allowed to select which students are admitted, unless a lottery system is enacted. Public schools, unlike a business or private school, enroll students regardless of test scores or academic performance.
“As public schools, we accept everyone and meet them where they are,” Moccia said.
Nonprofit organizations would run the schools, though not necessarily just one group for all 40 charter schools, but funding would come from school district’s main revenue — public taxes that are doled out per student.
The effectiveness of the different set of schools has been a national debate in recent years. A report from Stanford University stated that of 16 charter schools it reviewed, 37 percent of students delivered learning results “that are significantly worse than their student would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools.” The report also showed 17 percent of students showed “superior education opportunity.” South Whidbey’s schools chief was hired away from a district in New York that did not have a charter school in its boundaries, but Moccia said she was familiar with the system.
“Quite frankly, they weren’t very effective for the most part,” she said, noting one nearby school in particular that she saw become a “for-profit school.”
“Kids did not perform well.”
Washington’s organized educators, both the teachers union Washington Education Association and the school district leaders organization Washington State School Directors’ Association, opposed the charter school measure. O’Neal echoed arguments made by the directors’ association and the teachers union that the charter school initiative takes too much authority for publicly-funded education out of voters’ hands because they could not vote on a school board for the charter school.
“Charter schools aren’t the answer. The answer is innovation,” Moccia said.
More than $4 million has been raised in support of I-1240, according to the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission figures as of the morning of Sept. 11. Only $58,000 was raised against the public charter school measure. Much of the money for both sides of the initiative has been raised in King County, with $3.2 million donated for I-1240 and $57,000 against it, though donors in Arkansas chipped in $600,000, as did people in California with $100,000 and $50,000 came from New York.
This is the fourth time since 1996 that Washington has voted on a public charter school measure. All three previous attempts were rejected by voters, with 58.3 percent voting “No” to Referendum 55 in 2004. Support certainly exists in the state, however, with more than 350,000 signatures on the petition to add I-1240 to the November ballot. On South Whidbey, the desire to educate differently did not surprise O’Neal.
“People are looking for alternatives,” he said. “People are looking for a different approach than the 150-year-old paradigm than the one we’ve got.”
“One of the big attractions of (public charter schools) to a lot of people is you’re free to innovate, free of the context of bargaining agreements.”
In the South Whidbey School District, there are now three public alternatives. All three are housed under the umbrella of South Whidbey Academy, an alternative kindergarten through 12th grade school with three programs: kindergarten to fifth grade, sixth to eighth grade and ninth to 12th grade.
“Our alternative school setup has been our laboratory, and it continues to be,” O’Neal said.
“We’re going to prepare independent learners. At an earlier and earlier age, we’re going to start encouraging them to take control of their learning.”
One of the premises of the public charter school debate is that current public education is inadequate in Washington. O’Neal, as a vanguard of public education on South Whidbey, flatly rejected that notion. Sure, he admitted, not every student is being reached and propelled to academic success, but schools are on their way to that end.
“I think we do a pretty good job,” O’Neal said. “My kids went through the South Whidbey School District and they were excellently prepared for college and had the foundation they needed.”