Memo to the families of more than 1,000 Washington charter school students: Congratulations, you did it.
You regained the upper hand in defense of the charter school initiative, approved by state voters in 2012 as a safety net for disadvantaged and nontraditional students.
Like children in 41 other states, your kids can keep learning at three innovative, privately operated campuses in Tacoma and five other charter schools around Washington into the foreseeable future.
You’ve won a hard-fought battle to preserve a publicly-funded education largely free from public school constraints.
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You have not, however, won the war.
The state Supreme Court fired its first salvo six months ago by declaring charter schools unconstitutional, and it very well might not be the last. Legislators ingeniously worked around the court ruling this session by detaching charter schools from the common school fund and tying them to a state lottery account. It’s a tenuous fix, but you still have reason to celebrate it.
Hopefully your children stuck around after their rally at the Capitol Wednesday to witness the two-hour House debate and final vote on Senate Bill 6194. If they did, they saw how vigorously and thoughtfully your cause was argued by elected representatives on both sides.
Your students were given a civics lesson writ large.
Ten Democrats bucked months of party pressure and formidable teachers union opposition to vote for the bill. Republicans consented to several amendments, mostly hashed out in advance, though in one case they were persuaded in real time by Democrat floor speeches. In the end, the House recorded a 58-39 vote that many observers figured would be closer.
Speaking of floor speeches, your students surely must have been captivated by several of them – by the force of the lawmakers’ passion, principles, logic or all of the above.
They heard Rep. Eric Pettigrew, D-Renton, recount his family’s long journey from slavery to his election as a state legislator. Pettigrew called education “the foundation of who we are,” “a miracle” and “a beautiful gift” that some youths still are denied. Of charter schools, he said: “This is just one little tool to help them succeed, and if it’s one kid or 800 kids, it doesn’t matter. It’s what we need to do.”
They heard Rep. Christopher Hurst, D-Enumclaw, share his story as a former low-achieving public school “throwaway kid.” Hurst acknowledged he previously opposed charter schools but has come around to the belief that they can help students who fall through the cracks, like he did years ago.
You’ll also be pleased to know your kids were exposed to respectful discourse, for the most part. (Charter opponent Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett, had a petulant moment when he blamed “high-priced lobbyists” for the bill’s ascension in the House. “This isn’t about kids,” he said, drawing boos.)
Another thing your students were fortunate to see Wednesday was the creation of better law through compromise. Democrats wanted to make charter schools answerable to elected school boards, but that would’ve been a deal killer, so they secured other accountability measures instead. One amendment requires charters to submit to regular performance audits. Another requires charter leaders to file personal financial statements with the state.
Yet another amendment serves as a cold reminder of a hard truth you’d be wise to warn your kids about: Charter schools aren’t out of the woods yet.
This “right to know” amendment requires charter officials to advise families of any new legal action that challenges the constitutionality of the schools, which could bring them back to the brink of closure. The only question is when such litigation will be filed, not if.
With nearly 20 proposed amendments in all – some adopted, others swatted away – the process might’ve left your head spinning. The bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Chad Magendanz, R-Issaquah, described it as a “simple and elegant solution” to the charter school funding problem. And he said it with a straight face.
Despite the bill’s decided lack of simplicity and elegance, you have to hand it to state lawmakers, especially those 10 courageous House Democrats.
The Republican-controlled Senate followed Thursday with predictable final passage, and Gov. Jay Inslee would be foolish not to sign this legislation – once he starts signing bills again, instead of vetoing them.
State leaders are keeping your worthwhile educational experiment alive at eight charter schools, even while faced with incessant cries to fully fund basic education at nearly 2,400 regular public schools.
They will wait until next year, sadly, to meet their paramount duty to look out for the interests of more than a million school-age kids.
Be glad they’ve already met their duty to look out for yours.