Parents, teachers and education officials discussed and debated the upcoming initiative 1240 regarding charter schools during a public forum organized by Marysville Special Education PTSA on Oct. 11.
Supporters of the initiative, like Lisa Macfarlane, Washington state director of Democrats for Education Reform, argued that charter schools can catch students that would normally not fit into traditional public schools.
"This campaign is not about bashing public schools in any way, shape or form, because while traditional public schools are working great for some kids, there are a lot of kids who are not fitting into the box that we're trying to put them into," said Macfarlane.
Stanford's CREDO study, which studies charter school effectiveness in 16 states, shows that students in poverty and English language learners consistently fare better in charter schools, according to the study's summary at credo.stanford.edu. However, the study also shows that the average student performs worse in a charter school.
Mark Mains, a Mukilteo teacher who argued against the initiative, said that charter schools will not solve the state's foundational problems, which are primarily funding. He points to the recent Washington Supreme Court decision of McCleary v. State of Washington in which the judges declared the state was not meeting its paramount duty to amply fund education.
Macfarlane agreed that funding from the state was an issue and pointed out that Washington state consistently ranks in the bottom of the nation. However, she said the charter school issue was a matter of choice and wouldn't hurt traditional public schools.
"I would not be here this evening as a strong supporter of public charter schools if I in any way thought they were going to hurt traditional public schools or our funding," she said. Macfarlane has campaigned for more funding in the past and was a co-sponsor of some funding initiatives like I-884 in 2004.
One parent of a special needs student at the forum was frustrated that Washington wasn't meeting her children's needs. "I've been here for five years and I haven't seen Washington state do any closing of the achievement gap for special ed students," she said. She added that she used to live in Colorado where charter schools that could meet her needs were available.
"I understand you have good experiences with charter schools. Those places exist. There's no guarantee that that's the kind of place we'll get here," said Mains, pointing again to the problem of funding.
Macfarlane argued there were ways to increase the chances of a good charter school system. "The early states did not get this right and they have had to go back to their legislatures and fix their charter school laws, and what I can tell you with a high degree of certainty is that we have taken the best practices of what is working around the country and are bringing it here," she said.
The CREDO study reports that five of the sixteen states studied had charter schools perform significantly better than traditional public schools and that strong laws may be the cause. "The academic success of charter school students was found to be affected by the contours of the charter policies under which their schools operate," the report summary at credo.stanford.edu said.
Audience members questioned how the CREDO study measured charter school performance and wondered if there were non-measurable benefits.
The local math and reading state assessments were used to compare student progress against how that student would have likely performed if he or she had stayed in a traditional public school.
Justin Fox-Bailey, Snohomish Education Association president and a Snohomish teacher against the initiative, also noted that in the study's conclusion that 17 percent of schools perform significantly better and 37 percent of schools perform significantly worse, the word 'significantly' is being used in a statistical sense. Significant here means 'a difference that is probably not caused by random chance' and doesn't imply 'large' or 'important' like the word normally does.
Mitchell Price, an analyst for the University of Washington Center on Reinventing Public Education, said that there are many other measures which point to a great desire for charter schools from parents and teachers.
"Parent satisfaction surveys show that satisfaction levels are extremely high," said Price. "There are 600,000 students on waiting lists nationwide, which is another indicator that parents like what they see there. And finally, this is just an anecdote, but a charter school just opened in Boston. They had 60 openings and 4,000 applications."
Price also said that there are other studies that show charter schools in specific cities like New York and Boston or states like Louisiana perform significantly better.
In their summaries, Macfarlane said that charter schools are not perfect nor are they a "panacea" to all of Washington's education problems, but they do provide more options for students.
Fox-Bailey said that he was not against charter schools specifically, but hopes that the base problem of funding can be solved.
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