by Nate Bowling
Last Friday at 4:30 pm (Labor Day weekend) the Washington State Supreme Court threw a Molotov cocktail into the already volatile education policy debate here in Washington State. The court ruled 6-3, that because charter schools do not have elected school boards, they are not considered “common schools” and are therefore ineligible for the state funding they were expecting to receive. If you are reading this, you are probably familiar with the fallout.
The blame for this fiasco falls squarely at the feet of the Washington State Legislature. Because of the intransigent, donothing-ness of our our lawmakers, people and interest groups have increasingly turned to (our flawed) initiative process: reduction of class sizes (passed, but suspended by lawmakers), creation a state income tax (failed), background checks for firearms (passed), liquor privatization (passed), marijuana legalization [(for both medicinal and recreational purposes) pass and pass] and after numerous attempts to enact a charter law via the legislature, charter advocates turned to the initiative process in 2012, running Initiative 1240, which passed 50.69% to 49.31%. This fall seven charter schools began operating and one (in Seattle) was expected to continue its notably troubled operations. That was until last Friday.
Since last Friday we’ve witnessed a cavalcade of national media attention and some honestly gauche online behavior. Before I go further, I feel obligated to layout (for full disclosure) my stance on charters:
I am not an ideologue. I work in a public school in Tacoma, by choice; it is the highest poverty high school in our county. My views on charters are similar to my views on gay marriage: “I am pretty sure it’s not for me or my family, but I am often flummoxed as to why some people are so upset over the idea.”
I also believe that if the public K-12 system was serving the needs of the communities we are intended to serve, that there would not be a need/desire/appetite for charters. In many ways, the charter phenomenon is the natural consequence of communities–especially communities of color, in urban areas–dissatisfaction with the educational status quo.
Teachers United, an organization I am a founding member of, publicly supported I-1240, however I voted against that decision as a member of the board of directors.
I have met with the CEO of Green Dot Schools and was offered (and considered) roles within two of the charters that opened in Tacoma, but I declined them and remain (a) a charter agnostic and (b) a (mostly) happy employee of Tacoma Public Schools.
Long story short, I am very familiar with both camps and the contours of the charter argument.
There are no winners when adults behave poorly over issues that impact children: It is tough to watch people you respect and care about behave like children and I must say I was disappointed with the reactions I saw to the charter verdict. Celebrating the (potential) closing of a school is (never) a good look. Nevertheless, I saw substantial spiking of the football from “adults” whose social media bios proclaim them as “champions of education”. I found the celebrations and “we won” posts that erupted, to be very problematic. Closing schools, or throwing schools into uncertainty harms children. Period. I found it especially ironic that many of the same people who were “hashtagging it up” in support of schools in Chicago, late this summer, found cause for celebration in the possibility that charters would be shuttered here in Washington.
On the other hand, I found the response from many charter advocates to also be upsetting. The save our schools posts and demands for a special legislative session went out immediately. Many came from people who have been dead silent about the crippling underfunding of public schools here in Washington State [a situation that has contributed to the ongoing strike in Seattle and a contempt of court charge (and $100,000 daily fine) against the State Legislature].
During the budget crisis of in 2011, here in Tacoma, we closed Hunt MS, McKinley ES, and temporarily closed Wainwright ES. Earlier, but within recent memory, we also closed Rogers (now the site of Green Dot), Gault and Willard. Given that local history, I can’t help but ask: where were all these voices in 2011? Where were you when our school board voted to close three schools serving the Eastside (Tacoma’s most economically disadvantaged neighborhood)? Where were the calls for a special session? Statewide these eight charter schools serve a total of 1,200 students, fewer than four of the five comprehensive high schools in the City of Tacoma. Why are eight charters worthy of a national outpouring of support, but our “common schools” remain perpetually underfunded and allowed to be closed with nary a whimper?
Thinking about where this goes next and the political endgame: Since the decision, the charters have successfully raised enough money to maintain their operations for this year. So for 2015-16, Washington’s charters will actually be “donor/foundation funded, tuition free, private schools, targeting urban populations”. I am genuinely happy for the kids and relieved for the teachers (and families) of those schools, but the entire experience has left a nasty taste in my mouth and I find myself wondering about what lies ahead.
Republicans control the State Senate and I believe a “charter fix” would pass (with relative ease) in that chamber. Democrats hold a slim majority in the House, but there are enough pro-charter (or like myself, not anti-charter) Democrats that a “charter fix” will probably pass out of that body as well, however with greater difficulty. The charters have secured their funding for 2015-2016 (and I’m guessing could probably secure another year’s worth as this gets sorted out). A fix will certainly be a priority in the next legislative session. Therefore, the fate of the charters will reside with our Governor, Jay Insee (D). Insee is heavily supported by the Washington Education Association and signing the charter bill would anger membership and leave the union with a tough set of choices going into the 2016 gubernatorial election.
Conversely, vetoing the bill would greatly upset charter parents (many of whom are parents of color) and charter advocates–both powerful voices within the Democratic Party. Add to the volatility, that Inslee will probably face a strong challenge from a to be determined Republican challenger in 2016.
This fight is a long way from over. Sadly the only guarantees are more uncertainty and more kids used as pawns in the ongoing morality play.
Now, before you jump into the comments, please be aware, this is not a forum to debate the merits or faults of charter schools; that conversation is happening all over FB and in every newspaper comment section in the state. Nor are we going engage in ad hominems, namecalling or other petulant nonsense. I expect the same level of civility in the comments section that I demand in my classroom.
If you want to discuss the decision, share information, offer other perspectives, discuss the political implications or make predictions about what comes next, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
This post was originally published on “A Teacher’s Evolving Mind,” the blog of Nate Bowling. Find more of his writing at www.natebowling.com.