Alice Walton, Bill Gates, Paul Allen, and the Bezos family have made shit-tons of money selling you crap. Walton inherited retail giant Walmart. Gates and Allen built Microsoft into the world's largest software maker. And Mike and Jackie Bezos birthed the man who birthed Amazon, the world's largest online retailer.
Now these billionaires are dipping into their fortunes to sell you on charter schools.
Don't buy it.
At a time when our public schools are gasping for money, Initiative 1240 could suck an additional $100 million a year out of existing public schools to fund up to 40 new privately operated charter schools that would be taxpayer-funded but have no taxpayer oversight. It is an ambitious promise to fix public schools, not with more funding or proven reforms, but through the magic of the free market. Let charter schools compete with their traditional public school counterparts, we are told, and the invisible hand of God will reach down and personally teach our kids algebra: "Thou shalt solve for x!"
It's a free-market fantasy that hasn't worked in the 41 other states that bought into it, and there's no reason to expect it to work here.
In fact, for all the hype and hope over charter schools, the only credible large-scale study to analyze charter school performance came up with decidedly dismal results. Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) studied charter schools in 16 states comprising 70 percent of charter school students nationwide. Researchers found that 37 percent of charters actually performed worse than traditional public schools serving demographically like communities. Only 17 percent of charters performed better; the rest did about the same.
That's right—the CREDO study found that traditional public schools outperformed charter schools by a better-than-two-to-one margin. So much for the magic of the market.
Oh, but that won't happen here, I-1240's wealthy backers assure us. I-1240's authors learned from past mistakes, we are told, borrowing only the most proven provisions from the most successful charter school states.
But you wouldn't know it from looking at the details.
I-1240 empowers both a state charter school commission and the state's 295 school districts to approve charters. Yet CREDO and other studies found that states that allow multiple authorizers have worse charter school performance than those that do not because it enables charter organizers to shop around weak plans to multiple authorizers. If the local school board rejects your charter, try the state commission. Or vice versa. Or maybe a neighboring school district.
I-1240 also includes a controversial "parent trigger," a provision drawn not from past charter school success, but directly from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the corporate-backed organization responsible for pushing "stand your ground" gun laws, suppressive voter ID laws, and other ultraconservative legislation. A petition signed by a mere 50-percent-plus-one of parents at your child's public school could trigger its conversion into a charter, with no requirement that you even be notified that the petition is being circulated. There's no equivalent parent trigger for converting a charter school back, of course.
Even I-1240's 40-school cap is disingenuous. CREDO, in the only large-scale study to analyze such caps, found that charter schools in states that limit the number of charters—as I-1240 does—"realize significantly lower academic growth" than charter schools in states that do not have such a cap. I-1240's backers surely know this. Indeed, it's a data point they'll no doubt tout a few years from now when they inevitably go back to the legislature asking to lift the cap.
And of course, like in other charter states, I-1240's charter schools would prohibit teachers unions (a main selling point to its corporate backers), creating a cheaper, less-experienced workforce with higher turnover. A 2004 National Center for Education Statistics study found that charter school teachers earn 8 percent less than their traditional public school counterparts, and that 29 percent have less than three years of experience, compared with only 12 percent of teachers in traditional public schools. Studies have long shown classroom experience to be a major predictor of teacher performance.
Not exactly a series of provisions written with best practices in mind.
The result is a muddle of a measure that permits the conversion of schools regardless of whether they are struggling, and encourages the creation of new schools that would draw state and local dollars away from already cash-strapped districts. A converted charter could claim its building for free, with no obligation to pay the district for rent or even routine maintenance. Charter schools are not-for-profit, but many will contract out their management to for-profit operators. And all charters would draw taxpayer dollars—even voter-approved local levy dollars—but without any direct taxpayer oversight. Charter schools are solely accountable to their private, unelected boards; not even the parents who triggered a conversion would be assured a role in overseeing and operating their schools.
Sure, the charter authorizer—the local school board or the state commission—could always revoke the charter of a school it determined to be mismanaged or failing, but there's no provision mandating revocation, regardless of performance, and past experience in other states demonstrates that revocation rarely, if ever, happens: "Having seen charters operate in California," Seattle Public Schools superintendent José Banda recently told KUOW, "I know it's easier said than done."
Banda opposes I-1240, as does the Seattle Public Schools board and superintendents and school boards throughout the state. The Washington State PTA opposes I-1240, along with state superintendent of public instruction Randy Dorn and all of the state's teachers unions. And despite the promise to close the achievement gap, and the not-so-subtle insinuation that charter school opponents are somehow racist (Republican state representative Glenn Anderson of Fall City histrionically called charter schools "Washington State's bridge at Selma moment"), I-1240 is opposed by a who's who of minority advocates, including the NAACP, El Centro de la Raza, and Asian Pacific Islander Americans for Civic Empowerment.
These groups oppose I-1240 because there's no credible evidence that charter schools deliver on their promise without the substantial additional funding that makes the best charter schools so successful. And while its billionaire backers have given generously toward passing I-1240, the initiative itself comes with no additional funding.
But the worst part about I-1240 is the timing. In January, the Washington State Supreme Court found the state billions short of meeting its constitutional "paramount duty" to amply fund basic education. This landmark McCleary v. State decision was an opportunity to finally start a grown-up conversation about public school funding. Instead, our airwaves are now flooded with ads touting charter schools as a cost-free cure-all.
Walton has given $1.7 million to I-1240, Gates $3 million, Allen $1.6 million, and the Bezoses $1 million. The market has clearly been very, very good to these 0.000001 percenters, so it's no surprise that they should have faith in the market's divine wisdom. But some charter school backers are more cynical. Our K–12 schools represent our nation's single largest chunk of public spending—more than $500 billion a year—and privatizing even a tiny part of it means big business to the charter school industry. Scroll down the list of I-1240 backers, and you'll find plenty of contributors who hope to profit from its passage.
It's a shame because as divisive as I-1240 is, it also distracts attention away from the one education reform that everybody agrees produces proven results: high-quality early learning. Study after study has shown high-quality preschool and full-day kindergarten to close the achievement gap by increasing test scores, IQs, and graduation rates across racial and socioeconomic lines, most dramatically for at-risk children. No public investment is proven to return more bang for the buck than early learning.
But that would require a public investment.
Instead, a bunch of billionaires have spent $11 million selling us I-1240, an initiative that promises to fix public schools for free. By privatizing them.
I'm not buying it. Neither should you. Reject I-1240.