By Vivian Nguyen
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Where a child goes to school can be a deeply personal choice for families.
Traditional public schools, which are assigned to a family based on how their home district is zoned, are not always a preferable solution. Perhaps a school has poor ratings, or a student does not thrive in the traditional school system due to a learning preference or its curriculum.
The rising popularity of charter schools has become an alternative for families seeking a different option from traditional public schools or private ones. In Washington state, there are 2,370 traditional public schools and only 18 charter schools. About 5,000 students are currently being served by a charter school in this state.
What is a charter school?
A charter school is a free, public institution open to all families. There’s no entrance exam or tuition, but an application is typically required, and a lottery selection may occur depending on the school and if its waitlist is long.
Charter schools receive state apportionment and categorical funding including Special Education and Learning Assistance, among others. According to the Washington State Charter School Commission’s website, charter public schools in Washington have access to state basic education funding, but receive $1,550 to $3,000 less per student per year than traditional schools due to lack of access to local property tax levies.
Accountability of a charter school is a multi-pronged approach between its school board, the Commission which authorizes all charter schools in the state, the state auditor’s office for ensuring responsible expenditure, and the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, which oversees all public K-12 schools in the state.
Unlike traditional public schools, if a charter public school isn’t effectively serving its students and the community it’s based in, the school can be quickly evaluated and closed.
The power of choice
For families whose children struggle in traditional public schools, especially those in their assigned school district, charter schools offer a different, free alternative. This can be especially powerful for parents of color and low-income families that need more options.
Charter schools aren’t trying to replace traditional ones, said Natalie Hester, co-president of external affairs for Washington State Charter School Commission (WA Charters).
WA Charters is a nonprofit that advocates and advances authorized charter schools in the state. Unlike the Commission, which is a government agency and authorizer of charter public schools in Washington state, WA Charters focuses on support and advocacy of existing charter schools in the state.
Hester has a professional and personal stake with charter schools. With a child who previously went through the local charter school system, Hester previously advocated to the state Senate, and volunteered with WA Charters before joining as their board member, and eventually starting her role as co-president a couple years ago.
“I’m not anti-traditional or we don’t want to take over something,” said Hester, who also has another child in Seattle Public Schools. “We just want all kids to get what they need to be successful. We want parents and students to have choices.”
“It’s really an argument about choice,” she said.
Choice was the case for Minh Ramert—a Vietnamese American mother who currently has two children attending a charter school with Impact Public Schools. Based in Des Moines, Ramert has a 5-year-old and 8-year-old attending Impact’s Puget Sound Elementary location.
Before starting at Impact, Ramert’s oldest child previously attended a local private school. When tuition became too costly, Ramert investigated public school options.
“Nowadays, you don’t get a choice in which public school to attend,” said Ramert. “You’re automatically placed in the school closest to your home address. And the school our child would’ve been assigned to had poor ratings.”
Ramert reached out to a local mom’s group on Facebook to learn about additional schooling options where she was introduced to Impact Public Schools. After learning more about them, Ramert’s family applied for admission. Her child was placed in the school’s lottery and eventually received a spot.
Unique strengths and challenges
Unlike traditional public schools, which are typically obligated to follow a set curriculum, charter schools afford educators the autonomy to experiment, develop, and implement a learning experience that best serves their students, and can even be as granular as to focus on an individual student.
Ramert’s children thrived from this structure with one even recommended to skip a grade.
Charter schools, however, do present unique challenges. Common activities available in traditional public districts, like organized sports, are not available. School curriculums can sometimes feel politically charged, said Ramert, which can elicit strong emotions from parents and children. And if a charter school is located outside a family’s home district, it can be physically demanding to chauffeur a child to school daily.
Still, for families like Ramert’s, the advantages of charter schools win out.
“Our children enjoy school and going to school,” said Ramert. “I don’t believe that they know that their school is unique to that of a [traditional] public school.”
A primary argument against charter schools is that it can lack or discourage diversity among its student body. Hester blames this narrative on “bad actors across the nation that give charter schools a bad name,” and said that charter schools operate differently in Washington state.
“It really depends on where you live,” said Hester. “Because Washington state is a progressive one, there’s more of a motivation to shift the narrative away from what’s being said nationally about charter schools.”
There’s also an opportunity for local charter schools to learn from the mistakes of what other states have done and approach the system differently, which includes a heavy focus on supporting and uplifting local communities.
“In Washington state, our charter schools are deeply entrenched in the communities they’re located in,” said Hester. “And we want them to reflect the community they serve. These schools are intentional with who they’re doing outreach to.”
Many of the state’s charter schools are in low-income areas with people of color. Because of this, the state’s charter public schools largely serve global majority students.
Washington state’s charter public school systems, like Impact Public Schools, also serve many Asian American families, including Chinese, Filipino, Vietnamese, and other Asian ethnicities.
For Amy Kiyota, co-CEO of Impact Public Schools, she thinks it’s important for these students to see their community reflected in the state’s schools.
“We believe that diversity enlivens and strengthens us and we’re proud that our scholars are reflective of the communities where our schools are located. This is true of many public schools in Washington—not just Impact.”
Life beyond charter schools
Ramert and her husband originally planned to find another charter school for their children after they aged out of their current one. But it’s unclear whether they’d be expected to re-apply and enter another lottery, or whether previous experience would help them be grandfathered into the next tier of their charter school journey.
“It sounds like it would be ideal and nice [to continue education with a charter school], but we’re not entirely certain if there would be any incredible gain from seeking out another charter school,” said Ramert.
“Studies show that there is not much of a difference in educational gain as grade levels climb when it comes to charter versus [traditional] public.”
Still, if parents are curious about charter schools, Ramert insists that they carefully study a school of interest and make sure it meets their needs.
“Tour the school, attend an info session, talk to the educators and leadership at a school,” she said.
“See if the school’s values match your family’s and do what feels right for your child.”