Right now, Washington is one of nine states that does not allow charter schools to compete with the public school system. That could change this November, when Washington residents vote on Initiative 1240.
So why do the backers of Initiative 1240 believe this time is different? Perhaps partly because 1240 is being promoted by a well-funded campaign whose supporters include Microsoft founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen. According to a recent Elway Poll, a polling firm based in Washington state, 47 percent of Washington residents now favor 1240's passage, while 38 oppose.
This change in Washington is also sign of a larger, national effort to increase charter school education. The Obama Administration's "Race to the Top" program includes a charter school initiative. In 2011, Gov. Paul LePage of Maine signed legislation making the state the most recent to authorize the existence of charter schools. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is now set to expand the presence of charter schools in Chicago in the wake of the recent teachers strike.
While Washington could possibly become the forty-second state to authorized charter schools, a powerful teachers union has un-surprisingly come out as the leading organization in the state working against the measure. The Washington Education Association’s (WEA) political action website serves as the main campaign against Initiative 1240.
In the Washington Secretary of State’s voters guide issued to Washington state residents, opponents of Initiative 1240 say that charter schools are “an unproven, risky gamble” and cite a study conducted by Stanford University that supposedly proves that “charter schools do not perform better than public schools, and nearly 40 percent of them do worse.” The WEA’s political action organization also links this controversial Stanford study on its anti-Initiative 1240 website.
Liv Finne of the Center for Education at the Washington Policy Center, a free-market think tank based in Seattle, says that the Stanford study has already been discredited. The study only looks into fifteen states (including D.C.) of the forty-one states that have charter schools. The study also “looked mostly at students who had attended a charter school for one year or less, far too short a time to measure academic effects” with “many of the charter schools included in the study had been open a one year or less, not enough time to tell whether a new academic program is working.”
In a speech to the National Charter School Conference, Bill Gates said the problem is that the “notion of trying new things out in education makes a lot of people uncomfortable” and that “the majority of children in the country are attending schools that don’t work for them.” He's right. Ultimately, opponents of charter schools are missing the larger point. The more education options there are for children, the better for them and their families. Hopefully, voters of Washington state will choose wisely.