Cognitive Dissonance in the Washington State Legislature

By Matt Halvorson

Washington State Legislators agree that the opportunity gap exists. They agree that it should be closed.

We have proof that they know and "care": HB 1541, a bill specifically designed to "close the opportunity gap," passed unanimously out of the House last month and is moving largely unopposed through the committee process.

It becomes clear, however, that this is little more than a hollow gesture. According to The Seattle Medium, "this is the fifth time since 2013 the House has voted to close the education opportunity gap."

Meanwhile, the House Education Committee failed to take action on SB 6194 last week, a bill that would have saved the state's public charter schools.

Roughly two-thirds of Washington’s charter students are low-income and 70 percent are students of color, and data shows they are making huge strides academically. Charter schools are actively closing the opportunity gap for the students they are serving, yet the same legislature is not voting to save these schools from closing their doors.

Adding to the cognitive dissonance necessary to vote on one hand to close the opportunity gap while on the other voting to close schools doing exactly that is the list of legislators voting against the will of their own constituents.

Rep. Christine Kilduff (D-University Place), Rep. Larry Springer (D-Kirkland) and Rep. Patty Kuderer (D-Clyde Hill) joined Santos in voting against giving SB 6194 its scheduled hearing last Thursday.

Kuderer's constituents in the 48th District voted to approve charter schools back in 2012 with 56.79% of the vote. They passed in Kilduff's 28th District as well with 56.04%, and in Springer's 45th District with 55.34%.

Springer dropped a title-only bill after last Thursday's committee hearing, allowing policy language for a replacement for SB 6194 language to be drafted as it moves through committee and giving the charter movement continued reason for hope.

But the opportunity gap in Washington will not just magically disappear because we've voted to erase it, or because we wish it didn't exist. The gap won't be closed by doing the same things we've been doing as part of the same system that created the gap in the first place. It will take bold action from legislators, the kind that our students have been sorely lacking. It should start by saving charter schools.

From a piece written by Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) and Affiliate Faculty at the University of Washington Bothell, for The Seventy Four:

"Washington state may soon have a new claim to fame: Unless the legislature acts within the next 10 days, we will be the first state in the union to intentionally shut down a group of high-performing schools that serve mainly disadvantaged students.
When voters passed a ballot initiative in 2012, they authorized a state commission appointed by the governor and other elected officials to selectively approve and oversee a set of public charter schools. These are schools that are freed from district bureaucracy so educators can create new solutions for students who struggled in the traditional school system. In exchange for their flexibility, charter schools in Washington are held to a very high accountability standard: they will be closed  if they don't perform well.
I've been studying charter schools for more than 20 years, (but my opinion here is mine alone, not that of the University of Washington.) Charter schools don’t always work well, particularly if the state law isn’t well crafted. But that’s not the case in Washington. Our law is one of the best in the country. We’ve followed national best practices from the 40 states that created charter schools before us. And it shows. Washington charter schools are already making notable progress academically. (The 74: Facing Closure, Washington State Charter Schools Release Data Showing Students Excelling)
They are attracting a very diverse student population. They are serving students with special needs. They are partnering with local school districts to share their practices. They are empowering teachers to try new approaches, like embedding design and computational thinking in every classroom or giving every student an individualized learning program. Students and their parents in Washington’s public charter schools say they are thrilled with the high expectations, supports, and warm caring environments they are getting.
All of this progress was threatened last September, however, when the state Supreme Court ruled the initiative unconstitutional. This innovative approach didn’t fit into a 1909 definition of 'common schools,' leading the court to conclude that the schools couldn’t receive traditional public school funding streams."