No on I-1240: Why charter schools aren’t the answer

Sebrena Burr, community activist and mother of 9-year old daughter Rena, went on a tour of charter schools in Houston hosted by pro-charter organizations. She now believes charters are not beneficial for the most underserved populations and has become an outspoken advocate about the harmful impacts of I-1240. (Photo courtesy Sebrena Burr)

Unless you are immersed in the education world, your exposure to charter schools might be limited to the 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman.

But with Initiative 1240 on the Washington ballot this year, you’re being asked to make a major decision regarding our education system with little information other than the ample evidence that our existing schools are struggling.

Washington is one of the only states in the country with a growing opportunity gap between students of color/low-income students and their white counterparts. In the recent state Supreme Court decision, the court ruled in favor of the plaintiff stating that Washington State has failed its paramount duty to provide basic education to all children. This upcoming legislative session, elected officials will be tasked with determining how we will fully fund basic education during an economic recession.

But in the midst of dealing with a broken and underfunded system why are we thinking about diverting more money from our struggling school districts to 40 charters schools that would only educate a very small proportion of our children? I-1240 has steered the conversation away from the thousands of students and the growing opportunity gap to the needs of less than 1% of our student population.

How did we find ourselves considering such an inequitable option?

Over $4.6 million dollars was raised by a group of wealthy individuals to get this initiative on the ballot.

Charter schools have already been voted down by the Washington State Legislature six times including in the 2012 legislative session, and three times by Washington voters directly. The comparatively modest $235,000 raised by the No On 1240 campaign was not enough to deter charter proponents.

For communities of color, the case around whether or not charter schools are effective is not the most pressing concern – it’s the lack of community input that has gone into this initiative. Many minority groups including, Native Americans, African Americans and a number of immigrant groups have had a tumultuous relationship with education in the US due to a lack of accountability and input. Big decisions about education have historically been, and continue to be, made for us as opposed to in collaboration with us, even when they are intended as solutions to a problem that impacts our children the most.

Admittedly, not all communities of color are in agreement on the issue of charter schools. I-1240 is one of the only issues on the ballot this year that typically aligned progressive organizations and voters have not found consensus on. This has made the waters even murkier.

As community activists and people of color, here are some of the concerns we find with Initiative 1240:

(1)    Lack of public oversight and accountability: Charter schools would be exempt from many of the laws that govern our public schools, creating a separate unequal school system. Under I-1240, the state bureaucracy created to oversee charter schools would be composed of political appointees and not accountable to voters. Instead, these schools would be run by private boards, not publicly-elected local school boards so public money is excused from being accountable to taxpayers. Even the Washington State PTA, who typically support the notion of charter schools came out against I-1240 sighting the lack of public oversight as the major concern.

(2)    I-1240 doesn’t guarantee any substantive improvements: Charters are simply a political move that would allow public dollars to be put into privately run schools. Nothing concerning the quality of instruction, teaching models, cultural competency, lowered classroom sizes or other best practices that have proven to have the highest impact on vulnerable children are part of this initiative. It simply changes how and for what public education dollars  can be used for and provides no guarantee of actually improving student performance.

(3)    Charters reinforce segregation and fail to serve our most vulnerable children: While I-1240 gives application preference to charter schools with plans for serving “at-risk student populations or students from low-performing public schools”, it does not actually require that any such schools be established. Numerous national studies have discovered children of color, English Language Learners, and special education students are significantly and disproportionally underserved in charter schools in every state which has charters. This widens the opportunity gap and creates more disparities. Additionally, given that applicants will be awarded admittance based on a lottery system, it is clear that advantage will be given to families with the most resources, time, and capacity to navigate systems. Charter schools also tend to be more racially and economically segregated. It is for these very reasons that the NAACP along with many other local community based organizations that represent communities of color have opposed the initiative.

A 2009 study done by Stanford University found that, on average, charter schools perform about the same or worse than public schools. (Chart via Wikipedia)

(4)    Charters have not been proven to outperform public schools: Numerous studies including one out of Stanford University found that only 17% of charters performed better than public schools, while 46% performed the same and 37% performed worse. Washington State also has a number of successful innovative schools including the highly successful Seattle World School and the Aviation School in the Highline School District. These schools provide the same merits as charter schools claim to provide within the structure of the public school system and with adequate oversight.

(5)    Charters dilute funding and undermine important systems level change: Charters will divert resources and distract from the more important conversation about how we restructure our system to serve all children, not just a select few admitted into charter schools. Perhaps more importantly, charter schools draw funds from public school districts (an estimated $100 million). This means that money is taken away from a majority of our students to benefit a small number of children.

(6)    The threat of conversion: Under I-1240 50% of parents OR teachers can petition to turn a public school into a charter school. Any public school, not just failing public schools, could be converted into a charter school based on such a vote. No plan has been outlined as to what school the former public students who are not allowed into the charter school or choose not to attend would go to or how they would access transportation to get there. Moreover, being forced to change schools is not only emotionally disruptive but also compromises students’ educational experience and progress.

There’s no denying that major improvements to our education system are desperately needed.

But initiative 1240 for charter schools in Washington State is not the answer. If anything, it is an expensive and potentially divisive alternative hurting the very groups of children it deems to help.

We need to refocus our conversation, efforts, and resources on transforming our educational system so that it works for all of our children, regardless of background, gender, race, socioeconomic status, or zip code.

While I-1240 purports to address education reform and the opportunity gap that has resulted from a broken system, communities of color have systematically been cut out of the conversation despite the fact that our children are disproportionately affected by the growing gap every day.

I-1240 fails to take into account the requirements and perspectives of many communities in Washington who will be the most impacted by these decisions. Worst of all it is a huge step backward from our duty to provide a high quality education to each and every child.


This post was produced with support from CityClub. The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of CityClub. For more perspectives on I-1240 and other Washington ballot initiatives, check out The Living Voters Guide.

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Roxana Norouzi

Roxana Norouzi has worked with immigrant and refugee populations in the Seattle area for the past 10 years. Currently, she provides strategic guidance around education policy and implementation for OneAmerica, Washington State’s largest immigrant right’s organization. She's also president of The Seattle Globalist Board of Directors. In 2010, Roxana was awarded the University of Washington’s Bonderman Fellowship which allowed her to travel to the Middle East, India, Southeast Asia, East Africa, West Africa and South America. Roxana's views are her own and don't necessarily represent OneAmerica or the Seattle Globalist.
Roxana Norouzi


  1. Devon and Roxana,
    Great piece and I’m so glad you put it out. Other than the endorsements for the No On 1240 campaign from several local organizations of color (and these are critically important), there has been a real lack of on-the-ground organizing amongst folks of color on this issue (and only a few public voices from folks like myself). And yes, once again, it is education policy being done “to” the communities it is supposed to be serving – and in this case by the mega-rich. So I’m thankful for your voice here.

  2. The statement that minority majority schools in this region are underfunded versus “white majority schools” is false–in fact the minority majority schools get more funding, The city of seattle is using the bulk of the recent education levy to provide free pre-k for the minority majority elementary’s and before and after school programs for all grades, free school health and dental clinics in the minority majority areas are being added with the funds and the seattle public school district is giving free laptops to the students at the minority majority highschool while the white majority schools do not get laptops, health clinics, or free pre-k-the whites even have to pay for kindergarden(all day)–while several of the minority majority elementary’s provide (all day)for free. You should stop portraying education funding as if the “whites” are getting something everyone else is not–otherwise someone might sue and end these obviously discriminatory programs you pretend don’t exist…

    1. Tate
      As I understand it, the supplemental programs you refer to are based on students who receive free or reduced lunch, i.e. lower socioeconomic status. In January 2012, the Supreme Court stated Washington State has failed in its duty to provide basic education for all children and has mandated the State increase its funding for public transportation for schools, reduced class sizes, full day kindergarten, school maintenance, supplies, and operating costs.

      If you are referring to the growing opportunity gap or achievement gap between children of colour, English Language Learners, and children of lower socioeconomic status and the majority community which is primarily white and middle class, the gap is widening. Certain groups of students have lower high school graduation rates, test scores and college readiness. The reasons behind the gap are numerous. At the end of the day, all children should have the same opportunities including access to good public school education.

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