I can certainly see the appeal of this charter school initiative.
We have all come to see that district-level rules and bureaucrats are the real impediment to reforming our schools so they serve students better. Charter schools go around that impediment by working outside those structures. Isn't that a good thing? I think it is. Sure, I'd like to fix the problem instead of working around it, but I'm not very optimistic about fixing the problem in my lifetime. The temptation to just bypass it is pretty strong.
It's true that a lot of charter schools, nationally, don't allow students with IEPs to enroll or refuse to serve them if they do enroll. But the Washington charter school initiative both requires charter schools to enroll students without regard to their special needs and also requires them to serve those students appropriately. The enforcement for charter schools would come from state and federal agencies and from the charter school authorizer. Failure to fulfill IEPs - by itself - could be grounds for revoking the school's charter. That's pretty good accountability and enforcement. I think it is only fair to note that a lot of Seattle's public schools don't do this. There are a lot of schools that will not accept students with special needs and, as we know, there are a lot of Seattle public schools where special needs students are not adequately served.
If you think about it, any school that is required to actually serve any student who enrolls, be they disabled, an English Language Learner, highly capable, or whatever, cannot organize itself as a traditional school does. It will have to adopt a student-centric structure built from the bottom-up, not from the top down. That need leads us to think that the charter schools would exercise their license to be different from traditional schools. It suggests that the charters really will be student-centered.
I was also thinking that if even one - even one - of Seattle's attendance area schools were to convert to a charter, it would put the District in a very desperate situation. I can't imagine how the District could cope with the loss of the capacity represented by even a single attendance area school anywhere in the district. Imagine how much worse it would be for them if the school that converted were in the northeast or West Seattle. The District would have to re-draw attendance areas and all of the neighboring schools would instantly become unbearably overcrowded. That means that any school community that is willing to play chicken with the District - any school willing to threaten a conversion vote - can blackmail the District into any concession. Want to change your math curriculum? Just threaten a conversion vote over it. Want more input in the selection of your principal? Just threaten a conversion vote over it. Want to cap your enrollment? Just threaten a conversion vote over it. This charter initiative would put a great deal of power into the hands of any school-based group that could make a credible threat of a conversion vote. The District could not contend with so many threats without becoming a lot more responsive to families. That would be a good thing, wouldn't it? In a weird way, the charter school initiative could be the tool we need to make the District responsive to the community they serve.
Let's not forget that the teachers could also threaten a conversion vote. If the teachers think that the principal is an ogre or an idiot, they could petition the district for a change and back it up with the threat of a conversion vote. That would put a lot of power in the teachers' hands. Would that be a good thing?
Anyone with a gripe against the District, and that includes just about everyone who reads this blog, must feel a little tempted to support this charter initiative. I can certainly see the appeal. It would offer a shortcut to the kind of schools and the kind of district that we would really like to see.