This week the state auditor released a long and very dry report on how Washington's controversial charter school system is performing six years after voters opted to legalize charter schools in this state. I skimmed through it so you don't have to (you're welcome for that).
The auditors found that while charter schools are mandated to serve at-risk and under-served communities under the Charter School Act, just four out of 10 charter schools that were open in Washington state during the 2017-'18 school year actually serve more low-income students than the neighboring traditional public schools around them.
Compared to the larger district, however, charter schools do tend to serve more low-income and non-English speaking students. These discrepancies, according to the report, are mostly due to the schools' locations, as they are frequently opened in lower-income parts of town.
When it comes to students with disabilities and special needs, most charter schools enrolled a higher percentage than both neighboring and district schools. However, those same schools fell short in enrolling students with more severe disabilities and more "significant" special needs.
This is all kind of a mixed bag. Charter schools are doing less well in matters of transparency and accountability. The report found that while all schools had a public records officer, 70 percent of them either failed to establish or publish a protocol for handling public records requests, which is a violation of the state Public Records Act.
At the same time, auditors say that charter school boards have often failed to adequately document their process of making decisions. This has long been a chief criticism of charter schools. Unlike regular old public school boards, charter school boards aren't locally elected but are self-appointed. This, to many opponents of charter schools, is a concern, and for good reason. In Ohio, for instance, a nearly 20-year-old online charter school was ordered to repay the state $80 million before the school abruptly shuttered, leaving over 12,000 students without a school in the middle of the school year.
There have been no egregious charter school failures in Washington state, at least not yet, but this report shows that if charter schools are actually going to live up to their promise—and not just divert funds from traditional public schools—they've got a ways to go.