Why Seattle and New Orleans May Help Decide the Future of Charter Schools in America

Parents are up in arms about disciplinary measures at Success Academy charter schools in New York.

The Chicago Board of Education just approved a proposal to open two new charter schools within the city. Charter schools in Pennsylvania are borrowing money from banks because they have yet to receive state funds for the current school year. And across the nation, proponents of charter schools are signing a petition to overturn the recent ruling by the Washington State Supreme Court that found charter schools unconstitutional.

As charter schools seem to be gaining in popularity, they are also generating unprecedented controversy. Seattle and New Orleans provide prime examples of the arguments both for and against charters.

Seattle Charter Schools: Not Common Enough?

Washington first authorized charter schools in 2012, when voters passed Initiative Measure No. 1240. The initiative was finally successful after after three earlier attempts had failed — in 1995, 2000, and 2004. In 2012, however, the initiative was particularly well-funded: Both Bill Gates and Alice Walton (of the Walmart empire) donated generously to support the the measure — which only narrowly passed — to allow a “maximum of up to 40 public charter schools to be established over a five-year period as independently managed public schools operated by qualified nonprofit organizations approved by the state.”

The success didn’t last. The initiative was immediately challenged by a coalition that included the Washington Education Association, League of Women Voters, and El Centro de la Raza, all of which maintained that Measure 1240 was contrary to the Washington State Constitution, which only permits funding for “common schools.” The coalition argued that charter schools are not subject to local control and therefore do not fall under the category of “common schools.”

After a year of deliberating, the state Supreme Court agreed, and this past September it struck down 1240 for violating the state constitution. The 6–3 decision asserted that charter schools did not meet the criteria for common schools because their governing boards were not elected, but rather were appointed by individual school founders.

The debate has not ended with the court’s decision, however. Almost immediately, State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, representing a coalition that includes the Washington State Charter School Association and the League of Education Voters, filed a motion for the court to reconsider the ruling. In the meantime, some charter schools, including Seattle’s Summit Sierra School, remain open as homeschools and have started fundraising initiatives to make up for the lack of state support.

What the court’s ruling means for the existing nine charter schools and the 1,300 students who attend them remains to be seen.

New Orleans: A Post-Katrina Success Story?

Though New Orleans has been home to charter schools for nearly two decades, their existence there remains just as contentious as it is in Washington.

Before Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans, its public education system was nothing short of atrocious. Nearly two-thirds of the city’s public schools were classified as “failing,” and the Orleans Parish School District was considered the second-worst district in the state.

In 2005, the city enacted some of the most radical education reforms in the country, converting the public school system into one dominated almost entirely by charter schools. Ten years later, the results of the transition are mixed. On the one hand, high school graduation rates have increased by 18.3 percentage points, from 54 to 73 percent. Some charters, including the five FirstLine schools, have also implemented innovative curricula and encouraged students to achieve noteworthy successes that can’t be measured according to traditional academic metrics.

On the other hand, according to data presented by public school teacher and education activist Mercedes Schneider, only a fraction of the 2014 graduating class from New Orleans Recovery School District (RSD) scored high enough on the ACT to qualify for admission to Lousiana state colleges based on requirements set by the Louisiana Board of Regents. Parents and critics of the RSD maintain that there is not enough support for students with special needs, that schools are overly selective, and that the no-tolerance discipline policy adopted by many schools is excessively harsh.

Overall, however, New Orleans seems to be better off because of its charter schools. Researchers at the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans (ERA–New Orleans) at Tulane University found that, prior to the reforms instigated by Hurricane Katrina, the academic performance of students in the city was far below that in the rest of the state. After the storm, the achievement gap between returning students in New Orleans and the rest of the state markedly decreased.

The issue is becoming even more contentious — and overtly political — as controversial governor and presidential hopeful Bobby Jindal holds the RSD up as a model for the nation and plans to expand the program with more controversial reforms, including vouchers for religious private institutions and for-profit schools. Whether this will actually happen remains to be seen.

The Takeaway

Taken together, Seattle and New Orleans present a microcosm of the nationwide debate over charter schools. And with many variations on a theme — in New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and elsewhere — it is unlikely the debate will be settled soon. But maybe the debate itself will serve as an encouragement to all schools — public and charter alike — to serve students better.

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