Everything you need to know—and more! Find answers to frequent questions about public charter schools.

About Charter Schools

Are charter schools public or private schools? Charter schools are public schools. They are free, do not charge tuition, and are open to any student living in Washington state.

Who runs charter schools? In Washington state, charter schools are run by nonprofit organizations. (They cannot be run by religious, sectarian, or private, for-profit companies.)

How are public charter schools funded? Charter schools are funded just like other public schools, based on student enrollment. Students at charter schools receive the same state and federal funding as those in traditional public schools.

How will struggling students benefit from charter schools? Charter schools offer all students innovative learning opportunities that will increase their academic success and ensure they are ready for college and to get started in a career. Research from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University shows that charter schools are particularly effective in benefiting low-income students, students from communities of color, and English language learners.

What about special education services? Washington state charter schools serve all students, including those with special needs. Charter schools also have more flexibility than traditional public schools, so they are uniquely situated to provide high-quality educational services to students with various learning needs.

How many charter schools may be established in Washington state? No more than 40 public charter schools may be established over a five-year period in Washington state, and no more than eight may be established per year during that same five-year period.

How and when did charter schools become legal and possible in Washington state? Public charter schools became possible in Washington state after voters in Washington passed Initiative 1240, a ballot measure, in November 2012. Initiative 1240 allows up to 40 public charter schools to be authorized in Washington state over a five-year period, with strict oversight and accountability to be sure they are meeting high performance standards. These schools are subject to annual performance reviews and an evaluation at the end of five years to determine whether additional public charter schools should be allowed. Read the entire initiative.

How will charter schools decide which students get to attend? Any student in Washington state can attend a charter school, and they do not have to compete for a spot at the school. However, if more students want to attend a specific charter school than there are spaces available, enrollment is determined by a random lottery.

When will the first public charter school open in Washington state? The first charter school will open in the fall of 2014. Bookmark our Updates page to learn more about when new schools are opening. If you are an educator interested in opening a charter school, please visit the Educator section of our website.

What do “charters” and “authorizers” mean? The word “charter” is the same as a “contract.” A “charter” is granted to a new public charter school and covers the school’s mission, program, goals, students served, methods of assessment, and ways to measure student success.

The word “authorizer” refers to the state entity or institution that has the legal right to issue charters to those who want to open public charter schools. An authorizer is also responsible for oversight of these schools.

Charter School Governance

Who is in charge of public charter schools? Charter schools are approved, overseen by, and accountable to their authorizers. Washington’s charter school law requires strict oversight and accountability. Charter schools are subject to annual performance reviews as well as ongoing oversight by the Washington State Board of Education and the Superintendent of Public Instruction to measure their success in improving student outcomes.

Will public charter schools abide by education laws? Yes. Charter schools, like all public schools, must follow Washington state and federal health, safety, civil rights, and anti-discrimination laws, as well as Washington state K-12 education statutes.

Charter School Implementation Questions

How do charter schools work? A charter school is a free public school open to any student who wants to attend, as long as there is space available. Charter schools have the flexibility to be innovative in order to help improve student achievement. Below are some specific examples of how some charter schools have chosen to do this:

  • Offer longer school days. Charter schools are free to set their own operating hours. If the school strives to boost student achievement by giving students more time in the classroom, it can offer classes into the evening, on weekends and into the summer months.
  • Adjust curriculum to meet student needs. A charter school can create its own curriculum schedule–for example, a school may decide to break up the day to provide students with more time on the core subjects they need most. Charter school teachers have a say in the curriculum they teach and frequently change materials mid-year if they need to in order to meet students’ needs.
  • Create a unique school culture. Charter schools often build upon the core academic subjects by creating a culture or adopting a theme. For example, there are charter schools focused on STEM education, performing arts, project-based learning, college preparation, career readiness, language immersion, civic engagement, classical education, global awareness or meeting the needs of autistic students–just to name a few.
  • Develop next generation learning models. Some charter schools are completely rethinking the meaning of the word “classroom.” In Hawaii, students learn biology with the sky as their ceiling and the ocean as the classroom. Virtual schools, which exist completely online, use technology to change the dynamics of the classroom. Others combine virtual classroom time with time in a physical school building. In these cases, students can learn from experts located anywhere in the world. In addition, high-performing charter school management organizations like KIPP and Uncommon Schools are learning how to develop excellent teachers and share best teaching practices.

Can you provide some stats about charter schools and their results?

  • More than 2.3 million students attend school in 6,000 charters nationally. There are an additional 600,000 students on waiting lists.
  • In addition to Washington, 41 other states have approved and implemented charter schools; 23 of those have recently expanded the number of charters to be authorized in their states.
  • Charter schools are helping to close the achievement gap. They are raising the bar of what’s possible–and what should be expected–in public education. Read more on our Research and Studies page.
  • Charter school studies that use the best data and most sophisticated research techniques show charters outperforming comparable district public schools. Studies have also been clear that the quality of a state’s charter school law is a critically important factor in the success of public charter schools.
  • Charter schools are public schools. They never charge tuition, and they were designed to help boost student achievement. Increasingly, the demand for charter schools is far outpacing the supply in most communities.

Why are charter schools needed in Washington?

Voters confirmed that they want more options for Washington’s children—options that give every child the opportunity to succeed and be prepared for college and their careers. The sad reality today is that not every Washington state student gets these opportunities. In fact:

  • Just 56% of seventh-graders in Washington are reading at grade level. For low-income students and students of color, more than half are not reading at grade level.
  • Fewer than half of 10th-graders—and about one-quarter of low income 10th-graders—are at grade level for math and science.
  • 24% of our students are not graduating on time from high school. For Native American, Pacific Islander, and students with limited English proficiency, the odds of dropping out are 1 in 3.
  • Among states with a high proportion of technology companies, we are last in the number of high school graduates who move directly to college.
  • Of the students who do move directly to college, too many are unprepared for college-level work: Close to 39% are enrolled in pre-college (remedial) math.
  • High school dropouts are three times more likely to be unemployed than college graduates.

And yet, by 2018, close to 70 percent of jobs in Washington state will require a college degree or credential. Every child deserves to have access to these careers—to succeed in work and life. As a community, we have more work to do to ensure this is a reality for our children.

What is the State Board of Education’s Role in Washington charter school implementation?

The State Board of Education’s (SBE) role is to authorize school boards wishing to authorize high quality public charter schools in their districts.

The SBE is also responsible for overseeing the performance and effectiveness of the authorizers it approves; establishing the annual statewide timeline for charter school application submission and approval or denial; establishing an annual application and approval process and timelines for school boards seeking to become charter school authorizers; specifying the annual report timeline, content and format; and conducting special reviews where there is evidence of persistently unsatisfactory performance on the part of the authorizer, among other things. The SBE is also responsible for producing an annual report on charter schools for the preceding year, as well as a five-year review on the charter school program.

The SBE adopted rules for charter school authorizers. Updates on the rulemaking process can be found at www.sbe.wa.gov/charters.php.

What is the Washington Charter School Commission’s role in charter school implementation?

The Washington Charter School Commission is an independent state agency whose mission is to authorize high-quality public charter schools throughout the state, particularly schools designed to expand opportunities for at-risk students. The Commission’s role is to review applications, authorize, and hold accountable public charter schools. The Commission will place a strong emphasis on ensuring the highest standards of accountability and oversight for these schools.

Who sits on the Washington Charter School Commission?

In March, Governor Jay Inslee, Lt. Governor Brad Owen, and House Speaker Frank Chopp, by law, made three appointments each to the Commission.

Inslee selected former Seattle School Board President Steve Sundquist; Doreen Cato, executive director of the United Way of Grays Harbor; and Chris Martin, a Spokane gifted-education advocate and founder of Prodigy Northwest.

Chopp appointed Trish Millines Dziko, co-founder of the TAF Academy, a STEM-oriented school in the Federal Way School District; former state Rep. Dave Quall; and Margit McGuire, director of teacher education at Seattle University.

Owen appointed Larry Wright, managing director of the Bellevue Arts Museum with experience in mentoring programs; Cindi Williams, who worked on education policy and communications for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and at the federal level; and Kevin Jacka, superintendent of the Mary Walker School District in Northeastern Washington.

Is there a timeline for charter school rules and implementation?

The State Board of Education has adopted rules for charter school authorizers, which can be found at www.sbe.wa.gov/charters.php. The Spokane School District was the first to apply to be a charter school authorizer by the July 1 deadline. By September 12, the State Board of Education will announce whether Spokane will be an authorizer for 2014-15. Nonprofits interested in opening a charter school must submit applications to an approved authorizer by November 22. View the timeline

How are charter schools authorized and approved?

In Washington state, charter schools may be authorized through local school boards or through the new Washington State Charter School Commission, an independent state agency. The Washington State Board of Education approves the local school boards that can authorize charters.

A board of directors will govern each public charter school. The school and its authorizer also must create a performance framework that addresses student achievement, financial performance, and board performance. An authorizer may revoke a school’s charter at any time if the school does not live up to its performance contract.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools recently examined state charter school laws and found Washington’s to be the third strongest in the country. That’s because Washington leaders carefully studied the approaches taken in other states and have incorporated lessons learned elsewhere into the new law, including tough requirements for anyone wanting to open a charter school. The state also will require charters to issue annual performance reports about student success. And, after five years, the Washington State Board of Education will evaluate Washington’s charter schools program to determine whether additional charter schools should be allowed.

Where can I find more information about high-quality public charter schools?

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools is a leading national nonprofit organization committed to advancing the charter school movement. The Alliance provides assistance to state charter school associations and resource centers, develops and advocates for improved public policies, and serves as the united voice for this large and diverse movement.

You can also download the WA Charters Fact Sheet.