A classroom wall at Summit Sierra charter school in the International District. • Photo by Chetanya Robinson
A classroom wall at Summit Sierra charter school in the International District. • Photo by Chetanya Robinson

The following is a letter to the editor by Wayne Au, an Associate Professor in the School of Educational Studies at the University of Washington Bothell where he serves as Chair of the Campus Diversity Council:

The April 20 opinion piece by Amy Van, “Learning, uninterrupted: Students and faculty at Summit Sierra carry on with a successful school year,” is typical for its kind. It lauds a local charter school for serving a diverse student population and raising test scores, all with the intent of proving both how well Summit Sierra is doing as an individual school, and how great charter schools are generally.

However, speaking as a professor of education who studies charter schools, I think there are several issues to raise with Van’s opinion piece that would be important for IE readers to know.

For instance, Van is a staff member for the Washington State Charter School Association (WSCSA). Since 2013, the WSCSA has been granted over $13.55 million by the Gates Foundation to support charter schools. This is not surprising since Bill Gates Jr., Alice Walton, and Eli Broad all personally donated large sums to support the passage of Washington’s charter school initiative, and given that their respective foundations provided millions of dollars to local non-profits who ran the charter school initiative campaign.

So IE readers should not expect an unbiased discussion of charter schools coming from the WSCSA or their staff since they essentially are paid to promote charters.

IE readers should also understand that Summit Sierra’s claims to increased test scores should be taken with a grain of salt. A test score increase after only being enrolled in a school for a few months cannot simply be attributed to that school. Students have not been enrolled long enough to justify any such claims, especially given the fact that non-school factors have an impact on student test scores that overwhelms anything that happens inside of school.

Similarly, IE readers should notice that Van’s test score comparisons pivot from a discussion of Summit Sierra’s scores to national averages. This is a rhetorical sleight of hand that would lead us to believe Summit Sierra is getting amazing results. But the question should be, compared to what? Comparing Summit Sierra’s scores to national averages is absolutely meaningless because it does not tell us how their students do relative to comparable students in Seattle Public Schools. Unfortunately we cannot make accurate comparisons of Summit Sierra’s students to similar Seattle Public students because we do not know the MAP test scores of Summit Sierra. While stories of Sierra’s and other Washington charter schools’ increased test scores have been repeated often, all we have are stories, since the actual test scores have not been publicly reported.

Van’s article about Summit Sierra also leaves out some critical points about their student population. While it is true that Summit Sierra has over 50% students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, one of the official markers of student poverty, this is significantly lower than other South Seattle high schools. Cleveland has 68.2% of students that qualify for free and reduced lunch, while Franklin has 70.1%, and Rainier Beach has 76.3%. Simply put, Summit Sierra is dealing with significantly less student poverty.

Indeed, Summit Sierra’s student population numbers deserve even deeper scrutiny. According to their website: “Summit Sierra is committed to serving a diverse group of students and families in South Seattle, with a particular focus on the Southwest and Southeast communities, helping to close the significant demographic achievement gap.”

A closer look at their demographic data shows that Summit Sierra is not really serving students and families in South Seattle: 29% of its students come from outside of Seattle Schools or from wealthier Northend neighborhoods such as Magnolia, Queen Anne, Ravenna-Bryant, and Maple Leaf. Further, only 7% of Summit Sierra’s students are categorized as Limited English Proficient (LEP) and qualify for bilingual education services, whereas other high schools like Franklin and Rainier Beach have 20.1% and 26.6% LEP students, respectively. Moreover, 30% of the Summit Sierra students are transfers from private schools, not local public schools.

This leads to another critical point for IE readers to understand: The only way we know any of this information about Summit Sierra students is not because they report it publicly or willingly, as public schools in this state are required by law. Instead, I am able to share this information here because Washington State House Representative Gerry Pollett (D, 46th) pried it out of them with formal requests and, ultimately, threats.

In November of 2015, Representative Pollett submitted a public records request for Summit Sierra’s student demographic data. According to Representative Pollett, Summit Sierra initially agreed to comply by December 15, 2015. However, on December 16, Summit Sierra declined to provide the records. It was only after Representative Pollett threatened them with legal action and political embarrassment in the next legislative session that Summit Sierra complied with the request, finally producing some (but not all) of their records on March 22, 2016.

If charter advocates did not have anything to hide about charter school performance and their student enrollment, then they would not need to resort to half-truths and obfuscation about test scores and student demographics at schools like Summit Sierra. This is one of the main reasons I have been an appellant in, and lent my expertise to, both the lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of charter schools in Washington State, and it is the reason I applauded the Washington State Supreme Court decision that charters here were unconstitutional.

Ultimately, Van’s opinion piece in the IE is reads like an advertisement paid for by billionaires and their foundations, chock full of talking points and spin to uncritically promote charter schools. She essentially touts a charter school based on mysterious test scores that we have not seen and based on meeting the needs of a mythic student population that is not actually enrolled at the school. And none of this data is readily available to the public. In these regards, Van’s opinion piece illustrates why the Washington State Supreme Court already ruled once that charter schools were unconstitutional, and will possibly rule that way again: Charter schools should not get public money if they are not accountable to the public.

Wayne Au

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