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Washington charter schools are supposed to serve at-risk students. So, are they?

Fifth graders write during class in Seattle.
Elaine Thompson

Washington’s charter school law emphasizes the need to serve at-risk students, including those who need special education or come from “economically disadvantaged” families.

A new performance audit from the state examined how well the voter-approved schools are serving the needs of those students. It found mixed results.

Charter schools are publicly funded with state lottery revenue. They are managed by private nonprofits authorized by the Washington State Charter School Commission or by a school district. They’ve faced controversy and legal challenges since voter approval in 2012, and were recently upheld by the state Supreme Court

Opponents have raised concerns that charter schools may cherry-pick students to boost test scores or turn away those who require expensive special-education services. The latter is one reason the report from the state audior's office is of high interest.

“Compared to most of the local districts, almost all charter schools enrolled a higher percentage of the at-risk groups that we found,” said Tania Fleming, senior performance auditor. 

Fleming said those groups included low-income students, students of color and students with disabilities; English language learners, however, were served by the schools at lower percentages, she added. 

But that’s in comparison with whole school districts. When she compared charters to traditional public schools in their respective neighborhoods, she found that six out of 10 charters have more affluent student populations than nearby schools.  

For example, 46 percent of students at Summit Atlas in West Seattle qualified for free or reduced-price lunch compared with 60 percent in neighboring schools. At Green Dot Destiny in Tacoma, 72 percent of students qualified for free or subsidized meals compared with 76 percent for nearby schools.

To be sure, some charter schools enrolled a higher percentage of children from low-income families. At Green Dot Rainier Valley Leadership Academy in Southeast Seattle, 76 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch compared with 64 percent at nearby schools.

graphic Courtesy of Washington State Auditor's Office
Courtesy of Washington State Auditor's Office

The audit also looked at the extent charters are serving students in special education.

“We found a higher percentage of students in the special education program at charter schools than at districts and neighboring schools, for the most part,” Fleming said.

That said, she found that charter schools serve lower percentages of students who require intensive special-education services. She did that by examining how many minutes of specialized instruction each student in special education requires.

Students who require 16 hours or more of specialized instruction make up 20 percent of the special-education population in the Highline, Kent and Spokane school districts, compared with 7 percent of the special education population at charter schools. Fleming and her team asked for data from the Seattle and Tacoma school districts, but didn’t receive the information.

In response, the Washington State Charter Schools Association, a nonprofit advocacy group, said a 2018 study from the University of Washington Center on Reinventing Public Education found that charter schools serve students with a wide range of disabilities.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.