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Washington may shutter its charter schools

By   /   March 7, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

With mere days until the legislative session ends, Washington is on the brink of becoming the first state to shutter its charter schools against the will of voters.

Washington was the first state to enact a charter law by referendum in 2012. But in 2015, the state Supreme Court struck down the law, asserting that although charter schools are public schools they are not “common schools” under state law because they do not report to a local school board and also because of funding concerns.

Eight charter schools serving roughly 1,100 students could close if lawmakers do not come to an agreement on how to define and fund charter schools in the state by Thursday.

Act Now for Washington Students photo

Charter school students and families from Seattle, Tacoma and Spokane who are worried that their schools might close rallied Feb. 25 on the steps of the state Capitol.

Shirline Wilson and her husband decided to enroll their son, 11-year-old Miles, in the south Seattle public charter school Rainier Prep – one of the charter schools that might close.

“It really started with making a choice that would better meet his needs,” Wilson told Watchdog.org. “Miles has a mild learning disability and he just needed a program that would work better for him.

“We believe in the charter model and that these schools serve to help students of color and other students who have been underrepresented for a long time,” Wilson added.

Thomas Franta, CEO of the Washington State Charter Schools Association, told Watchdog.org that as legislators discuss the issue, more than 1,000 students could be forced from the schools their families have chosen for them.

“Never has there been more urgency for the legislature to pass a solution that will keep our state’s public charter schools open and serving more than 1,100 students,” Franta said. “We are grateful to legislators who have already demonstrated their commitment to Washington students, and we urge their colleagues to do right by Washington families by passing a long-term solution that would keep schools open, honor the will of the voters, and ensure the creation of additional high-quality public charter schools to other areas in the state where there is great need and high community demand.”

Jami Lund, senior policy analyst for Freedom Foundation, says teachers unions wield too much power in Washington state.

“It is wrong that the teachers union officials have insisted on blocking this kind of public schooling option even after they see the hundreds of children who are finally getting the education their families seek,” said Lund.

“This is a prime example of how laws propping up unions give undue influence to a small, special interest group to put their own dues revenue ahead of the best interests of families,” said Lund. “Using money forcibly taken from school employees, the union executives funded the opposition campaign of the charter school initiative. They funded the court case to knock down the law citizens passed. They even fund the campaigns of Supreme Court justices who ruled on the case. The union operators’ ability to artificially amplify their voice is an injustice that needs to end.”

Legislators designed Senate Bill 6194 to correct the charter school law the state Supreme Court found unconstitutional. It passed in the state Senate, but stalled in the House Education Committee. SB 6194 would have stopped the use of state general fund money to fund charters and instead would fund charters through the Opportunity Pathways Account, which uses revenue from the state lottery.

The Washington Education Association, one of the groups to file the lawsuit to have the state’s charter schools dissolved, did not return a request for comment.

According to an Associated Press report, Committee chairwoman Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, removed SB 6194 from the committee voting list to wait for a report on solutions to problems with the charter school law. Republicans attempted to put the measure back on the agenda, but the motion failed on a 10-10 vote – one shy of the 11 needed for the motion to pass.

Santos and House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, both said they were concerned the issue could come before lawmakers again unless legislators properly executed the fix to the charter law.

“The whole issue will be whether or not the work group is able to develop a proposal that passes the sniff test for the Supreme Court,” Santos said, according to the AP report.

Unless lawmakers take further action before the end of the legislative session, the charter schools will not be able to reopen next year.

Derrell Bradford, president of NY CAN, agrees partisan politics and union influence have contributed to the charter chaos in Washington state. NY CAN is part of 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now, a nonprofit organization that advocates for high-quality education for all kids, regardless of where they live.

“Any time you play politics with a kid’s future it matters deeply both to the kid and society in general,” said Bradford. “The fact is that the state of Washington voters made a promise to families who needed something different to get a great education for their children. The teachers union and the Supreme Court have broken that promise.”

Photo from Shirline Wilson

Shirline Wilson and her son Miles, 11, are fighting to keep charter schools open in Washington state.

Jeff Bunch, whose 6-year-old daughter attends kindergarten at Spokane International Academy, says the charter his daughter attends is more innovative and diverse than the district school she’d otherwise attend.

“It’s really upsetting for us as parents. She would be devastated if her school wasn’t around next year,” said Bunch. “She’s doing math and reading at the second grade level now and that basically happened over the course of this year. We just want a solution to be figured out and time is down to the wire now.”

Wilson said her son’s school focuses on encouraging their students to succeed in a way that did not take place in the traditional public school he attended.

“When you walk into the charter school and you hear these kids being told they can persevere, they can succeed, that college is for them,” said Wilson. “It’s the positive reinforcement.”

Wilson also says the smaller class sizes have allowed Miles to receive individualized attention to deal with his learning disability.

If your kid is struggling, these kinds of programs need to be to be accessible to every student,” Wilson said. “Not every school should be a charter school, but it should be a part of our public education system. You shouldn’t have to go to a private school to access agility, innovation and passionate teachers. This is what public schools should be doing.”

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Heather Kays, Watchdog’s senior education reporter, has more than 12 years experience as a reporter and editor covering mostly education and politics. She has written for the Herald News, The Record and the Staunton, Virginia Gannett newspaper the News Leader. Her work has been published by USA Today, the Associated Press and various other newspapers and websites. Kays has won numerous awards including: second place for First Amendment writing (while working with four other reporters) from the New Jersey Press Association; third place for the Robert P. Kelly Award for first-year reporting from the New Jersey Press Association; second place by the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists for first-year reporting and Virginia School Board Association’s Media Honor Roll for the year. In 2008, she won a scholarship to attend the Neiman Narrative Conference at Harvard University. Heather can be reached at [email protected]