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The Impact – Charter Schools in Washington, 12 Years Later

Mike McClanahan profile by Mike McClanahan

The topic of charter schools in Washington is marked by passionate support, fervent opposition, and unusual political dynamics. First authorized in 2012, as of mid-2024 there were eighteen charter schools in the state with around 4,800 enrolled students.

Like traditional public schools, charter schools in Washington are publicly funded and do not charge tuition. Unlike traditional public schools, charter schools are independently run. The word “charter” refers to the performance contract under which each school operates. Charter schools are required to meet the goals outlined in those contracts, which come up for renewal every five years. State law requires charter schools to be nonprofit entities. The local boards that oversee charter schools are generally appointed. The Washington State Charter School Commission is the main authorizer of charter schools, and is empowered to close underperforming or financially tenuous schools. However, the Spokane school district is the authorizer for two charter schools within the district boundaries of Spokane Public Schools.

The state auditor, OSPI, and the state board of education also have oversight roles for charter schools and their authorizers.

The Timeline

After multiple unsuccessful ballot initiative campaigns by charter school supporters, voters approved charters in 2012 with the passage of I-1240 in a close election. Opponents quickly filed suit seeking to overturn the new law. 

In 2014 while that lawsuit was working its way through the courts, the first charter school opened in Seattle.

In 2015 the Washington Supreme Court ruled that charter schools are public schools, but not common schools and declared the charter school funding framework unconstitutional.

In 2016 the legislature reauthorized charter schools under a different framework.

The new law stipulated:

  • charter schools would be funded by the state lottery via the WA Opportunity Pathways Account 
  • charter schools would be ineligible for local levy (property tax) revenue that other schools receive
  • converting a traditional public school to a charter school is prohibited.   

That law was also challenged by opponents of charter schools, but the state supreme court upheld the revised funding structure and the constitutionality of charter schools in subsequent rulings. Debate on the 2016 reauthorization bill showcased strong sentiments and intra-party disagreements on both sides of the charter school issue.

The 2016 law authorized up to forty charter schools statewide within a five-year window that closed in 2021. Between the passage of I-1240 and that 2021 deadline, a total of twenty-four charter schools opened in Washington. Six of those schools wound up closing. At the end of May the Washington State Charter School Commission voted to revoke the charter of a school in Pullman, marking the first state-ordered charter school closure here.

Jessica de Barros, Executive Director of the Washington State Charter School Commission joined us this week to talk through some of the arguments for and against charter schools, clear up misconceptions, and compare outcomes for students in charter schools and traditional schools as outlined in the Washington State Board of Education’s seventh annual Charter Schools Report.  

“Washington was the 42nd state in the in the United States to allow charter public schools, so we have the benefit of learning from lessons from other states that had tried it before. And in Washington state, we have a very high level of accountability and oversight, and that really distinguishes our law from others,” said de Barros. 

Watch the full episode here: