This guest post is by Melissa Westbrook, who co-writes the Seattle Schools Community Forum blog.

Despite three past “no” votes, Washington State voters are likely to see charter schools on the ballot this November. Proponents of Initiative 1240 claim that their measure is a boon for education in Washington—but voters should consider what these advocates are actually proposing.

By way of brief background, charter schools are privately run K-12 schools that receive state education dollars. They do not have to follow all rules and regulations that apply to traditional schools. With that flexibility, charters are supposed to be held accountable for outcomes. But are they any better?

In 2009, Stanford University’s CREDO study, one of the largest to date, showed that only 17 percent of charters do better than regular public schools, while 46 percent do the same, and 37 percent actually do worse than traditional public schools. This means that despite 20 years of charters, overall, they have made very little difference in the quality of public education.

Supporters of I-1240 point to President Obama’s support for charters. But the Christian Science Monitor recently reported that other disagree with the president:

“The worry is that President Obama and others are getting seduced by the movement because they’re looking at the results from boutique charters [like KIPP and Aspire] rather than at the wide array of charters that don’t outperform regular schools,” says Bruce Fuller, an education professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

He adds, “It’s irresponsible that President Obama would [push] all 50 states to create more charter schools in light of such sketchy evidence.”

So why bring charters to Washington State? Supporters say some charters have been successful with urban minority children. But the downsides are many.

· Highly segregated schools (this is why the NAACP is against charters).
· The need for huge amounts of private money to support these schools (many successful charters get between 30-100 percent more than state funding from private donors).
· Not enough services for Special Ed or ELL students who get “counseled out” of their charter schools.

What will count for Washington State is not what is happening elsewhere but the specifics of I-1240. The initiative would set up 40 charters over the next five years. Sounds innocuous enough, but the fine detail is troubling. Here are some examples:

Conversion Charters: If the initiative passes, an approved charter could circulate a petition to parents or teachers at an existing school and, with a majority of signatures, take over the school including the building, rent-free. They could do this at ANY school, whether it is failing or not.

Levy money: Education levy dollars, both capital and operations, would have to be shared with charters. If a charter is located in a private building, taxpayer dollars would go to maintain that building.

High-need Students: The wording in the initiative says “authorizers shall give preference” to proposals for charters for high-needs students but doesn’t say how. It then goes on to say that nothing prevents any other kind of charter to be created.

For-Profit: A charter must be started by a non-profit but they can then outsource management and nearly everything else to a for-profit entity.

Facilities: Charters have the right of first refusal, at or below market value, for any school building up for sale or lease. They also can seek space at any public or private entity and at/below market value.

This initiative does far less to help high-need students than it does in creating more bureaucracy, exposing good schools to charter takeover, and bringing in privatization to our public school system. There are also unanswered questions about parent involvement, teaching of religion as part of a “theme” school, and lack of oversight of the new Charter Commission.

The evidence is not in this initiative that we will see better educational outcomes. Decline to Sign the charter school Initiative 1240.

(A guest Slog post in favor of charter schools can be found here.)