Supporting progress in Washington state charter public schools

Allan Golston

One of the great scholars and thinkers on improvement science, Dr. W. Edwards Deming, once said, “It would be better if everyone worked together as a system, with the aim for everybody to win.” That mindset is exactly how the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation approaches our goal of improving education and economic mobility systems in the United States, including in our backyard of Washington State.

Working as an effective system means different actors working in close coordination to achieve a shared goal. In Washington we seek to create opportunities for all children in the state – regardless of their race, ethnicity, income, or gender – so they can reach their full potential. In a world where a college degree or other postsecondary credential is still the best indicator that young people are on the path to fulfilling their potential, we have teamed up with a range of partners across the education system to improve outcomes for students in Washington.

Improving outcomes for students in Washington means helping schools develop their reopening plans to safely bring students back into school buildings. It means supporting schools with high-quality curricular materials and instructional systems. And it also means supporting charter public schools for students whose needs can be better served by these public school options. 

In Washington, charter public schools are critical actors, along with district-run schools, in our shared effort to improve student outcomes across the state. Charter schools, like district-run schools, are open to all students, tuition-free, publicly funded, staffed by certified teachers, and accountable for state and national standards. They are run by non-profits and, in exchange for higher levels of accountability, have more autonomy than traditional public schools to customize their learning approaches. Importantly, charter public schools in the state are serving higher percentages of students of color, students experiencing poverty, and students with disabilities—the very students an equitable education system needs to deliver for.

Their autonomy allows charter public schools to adjust their education models to better meet each student’s needs and, as a result, there are high-quality charters whose students are flourishing. A recent study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes included examples of several of the state’s charter public school students receiving as many as 165 more days of reading and 189 more days of math compared to what they would have received in traditional public schools. These preliminary results are promising and we would like to see them replicated elsewhere.  

In addition, the 2019 Washington State Report Card found that students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch outperformed their state peers at traditional public schools in seven of the eight charter public schools that administered statewide tests in at least one subject area. The same year, Black and Latino students at Rainier Prep fared better on state English language arts and math proficiency tests compared to their peers in conventional public schools. And Spokane International Academy students did better in almost every grade and subject tested compared to their local district in 2019. Graduates of Washington charter public schools also have a 99% college acceptance rate.  These outcomes don’t mean that the local district is somehow inferior, it simply shows the value of high-quality charter schools as part of the wider education ecosystem.

These successes have been achieved even though charter public schools in Washington State receive significant less funding than traditional public schools--between $1,550 to $3,000 less per student--because they aren’t eligible for local property tax levy funds.  This should, can, and must be addressed by our policy makers.  The opportunity is now, and the time is now.

Given the demographics of the students served by charter public schools and the critical needs that these students have, charter public school funding equity is an issue that aligns closely with the Legislature’s shared focus on narrowing systemic inequities. Enrollment in charter public schools is up 35% this year because they have found innovative ways to deliver high-quality instructional content and social and emotional support to their students. But they could do so much more for their students with the equitable state funding needed to close that gap with traditional public schools.  This is a matter of equity and fairness.

It is time to address this systemic inequity and support increased funding for Washington’s charter public schools, which will allow them to continue to build on the momentum toward improved outcomes across the state. Students in these public schools deserve equitable support from our state’s leaders and taxpayers. Let’s work together as a system so that all of Washington state’s students can win.  I hope we don’t let our students, families, and communities down.

Allan Golston is the President of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s U.S. Program