These are exciting times for charter schools.
Spokane International Academy is preparing for a major expansion next year.
Innovation High School won a nationwide STEM contest, and along with its sister school, PRIDE Prep, has a long waiting list.
Next fall, downtown Spokane will be home to Lumen High School, a charter school for teenage parents approved this summer by Spokane Public Schools.
The future is also bright. Statewide, five new schools, including Lumen, will open next year after a state nonprofit won a $20 million competitive federal grant to help them get off the ground.
A charter school is a public school that is free and open to any student living in the state. Operated by nonprofit organizations, they are guided by specific missions.
They cannot be run by religious, sectarian, or private, for-profit companies.
Students at charter schools receive the same state and federal funding as those in traditional public schools, but do not receive local levy funds or facilities assistance from the state.
All are filling a need.
“Ten years ago, when I started, every district had a little day care in their alternative school for students that were parenting,” said Lumen co-founder Shauna Edwards after the school’s charter was certified. “For several reasons, those programs went away and didn’t come back.”
But with teenage pregnancy rates in Spokane remaining well above the rest of the state, the need was obvious.
It was the same case at PRIDE Prep, where children who struggled in Spokane Public Schools found healthy alternatives.
“We’ve always approached the charter school piece around providing something in the community that doesn’t exist,” said Travis Franklin, head of schools at Spokane International Academy.
“It’s not that we have bad schools in Spokane, I want people to understand that,” Franklin said. “Education shouldn’t be about competition.”
However, critics claim that charter schools compete for tax dollars.
That’s partly true. In the short term, diversion of students impacts overall finances because some of the public district’s larger expenses, such as principals’ salaries and building maintenance, remain the same even if a school loses students to a charter school.
However, that loss is only short-term, as districts typically respond by cutting costs over the long term.
That leads to a budget crunch. Cutting some costs, like the number of teachers, may be relatively straightforward (though still often painful). Other costs stay the same whether the school is serving 90 or 100 students.
However, charter school backers note that the budget argument ignores the benefits to students who may struggle in a mainstream school.
Many families agree. SIA and Innovation have some of the highest waitlists in the state.
Their academic results are at least comparable to the rest of the city. At SIA, scores for the statewide Smarter Balanced assessment for the 2016-17 school year were higher than district averages for sixth and seventh grade.
At PRIDE Prep, math and English language arts results were slightly below district averages; however, science scores were higher.
Some kids may be ahead of the curve before they enter school, perhaps an indication that families who pursue the charter school alternative may already be more proactive in preschool.
Last year, kindergarten readiness at SIA was 63.8%, far better than the districtwide average of 23.9%.