Wouldn't it be interesting if charter school opponents led sessions at the WA Charters conference in May?

Wouldn't it be interesting if charter school opponents led sessions at the WA Charters conference in May?

ather than battling against charter schools, which are themselves public schools, I’d like to urge any charter school opponents to submit a proposal to present at this conference. More pressing than any thoughts of charter schools versus traditional public schools is the deep inequity of our public school system. We should be sharing knowledge even across lines of disagreement, as we know we are all in this together.

Take this opportunity to tell the charter folks what they’re doing wrong by teaching them what they don’t know. You know?

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It's not about charter schools. It's about kids.

It's not about charter schools. It's about kids.

It’s not about charter schools. They’re not the point.

It’s about kids.

That’s the message I heard loud and clear at the WA Charters annual conference this past weekend. It hummed quietly like a fridge that you only notice in those moments when everything else is quiet. Like a mantra that disappears into the fabric all day long, easy to consciously miss but impossible to not soak in.

It’s not about charter schools. Charters are a vessel, not a destination. It’s about kids. It's about kids. It's about kids.

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'Parents want to be authentically included. They want to be respected.'

'Parents want to be authentically included. They want to be respected.'

Recapping the Washington State Charters Schools Association Conference morning general session:

The conference's lunch session got underway with a slip of the tongue from WA Charters CEO that tickled me as he introduced Michael Wooten, the inspiring, passionate grandparent of a young student who has found hope and a home at one of Washington's charter schools.

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Let's get to know Washington's charter school movement at this weekend's annual conference

The Washington State Charters Schools Association Conference is this weekend, which means we get to take a look behind the curtain of the charter school movement in Washington. What are they thinking about? What are they talking about? What are their priorities and their blind spots?

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The Rise Up and Be Recognized Awards: Honoring a Handful of 2017's Local Heroes

The Rise Up and Be Recognized Awards: Honoring a Handful of 2017's Local Heroes

Welcome one and all to the first semi-annual, fully manual Rise Up and Be Recognized Awards. Thank you for being here, wherever that may be.

These awards were created by me as a way to recognize a handful of Washingtonians who deserve a few extra hand-claps for the way their work and their way of life contributed to positive change in 2017.

The judging process was stringent and unscientific. I created the categories to suit my fancies, and I’ve awarded fake awards to whatever number of people I please. By the end, I’ll have failed to mention just about everyone, so if you find you've been omitted, don’t despair. The pool of nominees was limited to people I know about and managed to think of while writing this, and as a periodic shut-in, that’s not as long a list of names as you might think. For instance, I only finally discovered a few months ago that Chance the Rapper is amazing, if that gives you some idea. So, if you or someone you know has been egregiously overlooked, please get in touch with me and I’m sure I’d be happy to make up some new awards in the near future.

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With opposition fading, charter schools in Washington continue to grow to meet growing demand

With opposition fading, charter schools in Washington continue to grow to meet growing demand

"As we greet a new school year and say goodbye to another summer, I can’t help but notice that the rabid fervor over charter schools in Washington State has mostly flamed out.

At this time last year, everyone was still up in arms. The Washington Education Association had just led the filing of another lawsuit against the charter sector in an effort to maintain its monopoly on free public education.

Our state attorney general had just entered the fray, and the NAACP had issued its first suggestion of a nationwide moratorium on charter schools.

By February of this year, however, a judge had ruled in favor of charter schools, and the several months since have seen them slip — at last — out of the limelight for a moment. "

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Get a firsthand look this week at Summit Atlas, Seattle's newest public charter school

Get a firsthand look this week at Summit Atlas, Seattle's newest public charter school

Summit Public Schools is inviting the entire community to join them in celebrating the official opening of Summit Atlas, their new public charter school in West Seattle.

In addition to a tour of the building, students and families will be on-hand to discuss why they chose Summit Atlas, and the new school's founding principal will be there to answer questions as well.

Lots of folks with lots of different opinions about charters have never actually been inside of one. I think it's a great opportunity for folks to get a firsthand look at what a charter school really looks like and to hear from the real people involved in making it what it is.

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Talking with Chris Stewart about school choice in 'resource-rich, equity-poor' Seattle

I talked with Chris Stewart last weekend to close out the Washington State Charter School Association Conference. Chris is a writer, speaker and advocate for school choice as a means to a better education for students of color.

We talked about equity and disparity in Seattle, and Chris accurately described us as “resource-rich but equity-poor.” It made me wonder what will ever motivate us to change if we continue to have this much capital flowing into a city with this much racial segregation and discrimination baked into its schools.

We talked also about the national perceptions of charter schools, too, and about how to distinguish Washington’s charters from an unhinged federal administration advocating for odd versions of school choice. How do you stay on the right track when you’ve been given a longer leash for all the wrong reasons -- or by someone you fundamentally don’t trust?

Chris said he's "agnostic about the school, but religious about results,” talking about the pointless in-fighting about process that is happening among folks who agree that our inequitable education system needs to change. Later, someone asked a great, fairly obvious question: what results is Chris looking for exactly? What constitutes a high-quality education in the end?

Chris’ answer was simple: he wants schools to start by teaching black and brown boys to read and do math. He said you can find most of the benchmarks on the road to prison or to college in terms of literacy and algebra. First teach all kids to read and write, he said, and then let’s go from there.

That’s such a low bar! And yet it makes too much sense. If we haven’t mastered the first step, we can’t expect to take the 10th, but it threw me for a loop, for sure. Why are we having high-level conversations about education when we haven’t gotten to a point where we can teach all kids to read and write?

Yet that very truth necessarily brings to mind deeper questions. To ask what results I’m looking for is essentially like asking why I am sending my kids to school in the first place. And to frame those expectations against a school system that isn’t teaching all kids their letters and numbers… well, what’s realistic? What’s ideal?

My mind had started racing the moment the question was asked, thinking about social-emotional nurturing and liberating curriculum. About whether he’ll be taught, as I was, that Black history is the history of slavery, that communism is to be feared, and that manifest destiny explains the disappearance of indigenous people.

I’ve spent a lot of time and energy writing along these line about what's wrong with our schools — and rightfully so, I think, since there are, frankly, so many problems. I'd like to continue exploring the more positive manifestations of this work, though, and to start thinking creatively about building the positive characteristics we do want as we educate our kids.

What "should" school be? What do I want and expect for my own kids and their education? For all kids?

These are big questions to explore, and I don’t think anyone has all the answers yet, but one thing I know for sure is that the charter school sector in Washington is having the conversation. The conference showed that charter leadership in our state has a keen awareness of the inequity in our schools, along with a willingness to ask tough questions and then take new, bold action. That’s something I haven’t seen from our traditional public school district in Seattle.

I'll be talking with education activist Chris Stewart at next month's WA Charters Conference

I am excited to share that I've been asked to facilitate a keynote conversation with education writer and activist Chris Stewart at the third annual Washington State Charter Schools Association Conference on May 13. (Spoiler: I said yes.)

The entire conference looks great, with an overt focus on equity and advocacy. Sessions include titles like "Using Racial Equity Tool to Eliminate Systematic Racism," "Hot Button Issues: Student Discipline & Disproportionality," and "Supporting Teachers & Leaders of Color." Nice.

I'm particularly happy that WA Charters chose Chris Stewart as their keynote speaker, not only because they asked me to participate, but because I think it reflects and reinforces the charter sector's commitment to equity and to having honest conversations about race. Chris is a renowned speaker and writer on the subject of racial equity in public education, and he's the man behind Citizen Ed, a blog, podcast and full-blown education news and opinion page. If you're not familiar with his work, I would encourage you to start reading.

citizen stewart

I knew him first as an inspiring voice writing and speaking on behalf of marginalized communities, exposing inequity in schools and demanding change. As I've gotten to know him over the past couple years, I've only come to appreciate more the depth of his wisdom and the strength of his vision when it comes to the fight for better schools. 

Take this nugget, for instance, from an insightful post Chris wrote about social justice in education reform:

We can’t become paralyzed or disillusioned. We can’t live in our feelings forever. We can’t forget that lives and minds are at risk, and we can’t live the values we profess if we wilt in the face of setbacks.
No, we can’t join the right-wingers as they attempt to nationalize Michigan’s charter school sewer and make all of America an education casino. But, we can’t join the unionists either as they attempt to remove all accountability from public education as a way to hide unacceptable levels of failure.
And we can’t sit on the sidelines as passive bystanders feeling jilted as forces from the left and right threaten to unwind most of the educational progress we’ve made over decades.
All we can do is stay clear and focused on our permanent interests: accountable systems, high standards that are transparent, better options for kids trapped in poorly performing schools, and a focus on human rights for people who have suffered historic discrimination.

 

We've got a lot to talk about, and I have a lot of questions. What would you like to ask Chris Stewart? What should we make sure to talk about? Let me know in the comments below, on Twitter (@HalvyHalvorson), in an email, or really any other way you can come up with. I'm not too picky.

Charter schools have been upheld in Washington courts yet again

Attorney Rob McKenna, who represented intervening charter school parents and families in the recently settled case, speaks alongside a group of charter school students and parents in January. (Photo by Matt Halvorson)

Hey, great news! The charter school lawsuit is over! A judge upheld the law as constitutional.

It's time to celebrate and put all this hyper-political nonsense behind us. It's time to move forward, building a network of great schools with the ability to operate outside the purview of our systemically racist, intentionally colonial public school system.

Wait... didn't we already do this?

Yes.

First, the details, courtesy of Paige Cornwell of the Seattle Times:

A King County Superior Court judge ruled Friday that the plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging Washington’s charter-school law didn’t demonstrate that charter schools are unconstitutional.
Friday’s ruling is part of an ongoing legal battle over the constitutionality of Washington’s charter-school law. The lawsuit was filed by a coalition of parents, educators and civic groups.
Coalition members haven’t decided whether they’ll appeal yet, said Rich Wood, spokesman for the Washington Education Association.
The state’s eight charter schools are public schools, open to any student, but they are run by private organizations. About 1,600 students attend charter schools in the state, according to the Washington State Charter Schools Association.

"With [this] decision, students can return their focus to learning, and parents can rest easy knowing their kids’ schools can continue to provide their kids with the quality public education they deserve," said said Tom Franta, CEO of WA Charters.

But can they?

After all, Rich Wood and the teachers union "haven't decided whether they'll appeal yet." They haven't decided yet whether they will continue this specific version of their dogged defense of the status quo. They haven't decided yet whether they will needlessly repeat history for a third time.

"We face a group of politically motivated and powerful organizations who want to keep us in court and attempt to make our future uncertain," said DFER's Shirline Wilson at a press conference last month prior to the final hearing. "In the case of El Centro vs. Washington, I want you to understand that this is purely an attempt to shutter these effective public schools and remove our choices for gap-closing education. We refuse to be intimidated, and we refuse to stand down."

I like to think maybe the WEA and its cronies might give up this costly, distracting fight against its own past and future, but history tells us this lawsuit isn't over.

At least we can rest assured, based on that same history, that school choice won't go down without a fight in Washington.

"We will not be silenced by lobbying groups that value politics over truly improving public education outcomes," Wilson said.

And for now, we get to celebrate again, and breathe a rare sigh of relief. Whatever the politics suggest, whatever the status quo would have you believe, public school choice is an important civil rights issue, and it won the day again in Washington. Thank goodness for some good news.

Huge surprise: Washington’s Charter Schools are still under attack — and still plugging away

A coalition of unions, led by the Washington Education Association, is once again pushing to eradicate charter schools in Washington State. That’s nothing new. The WEA has been fighting hard to maintain its monopoly on public school choice across the state for years now.

In fact, it’s been such a long and dogged battle that it’s easy to get lost in the fray. Let’s catch up.

Washington State is currently home to about 1600 charter school students, and plans are in place to open Willow School in Walla Walla next fall, along with a Summit school in West Seattle and a Green Dot middle school in South Seattle.

Everything is on track to continue.

Also set to continue, often seemingly to infinity, is the coordinated opposition to our state’s charter school movement.

What’s all this about unconstitutionality?

The Washington State Supreme Court questioned the constitutionality of charter schools in 2015 based on a technicality around such schools’ oversight. The court’s initial opinion was lifted almost word for word from a document produced by the Washington Education Association (WEA — the state teacher’s union.)

The unconstitutionality loophole was closed last spring through a partnership with the Mary Walker School District near Spokane, which agreed to host the state’s existing charter schools and designate them as Alternative Learning Environments (ALEs).

This action was based on a resolution passed by the district’s board, part of which read, “the District believes that all students should have a choice in their educational program.”

Another key part of last spring’s decision is that funding for the charters in Washington comes from a specially designated lottery fund, which is separate from the pool of money used for public education.

But the saga does not end here! The Charter School Act was challenged again late last summer so the movement remains under fire.

What’s happening with the current lawsuit?

This time around, the plaintiffs have been led in name by El Centro de la Raza, a Seattle-area non-profit that receives grant funding from the WEA, but the case is almost entirely union-driven. Many unions involved have ties to education, but many don’t. Here’s the full list of plaintiffs (unions in bold):

  • El Centro de la Raza
  • Washington Education Association
  • Washington Association of School Administrators
  • International Union of Operating Engineers 609
  • Aerospace Machinists Union DL 751
  • Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO
  • United Food and Commercial Workers Union
  • Washington Federation of State Employees
  • American Federation of Teachers, Washington
  • Teamsters Joint Council No. 28
  • League of Women Voters, Washington State
  • Pat Braman, on her own behalf
  • Donna Boyer, on her own behalf and on behalf of her minor children
  • Sarah Lucas, on her own behalf and on behalf of her minor children

This list is significant because it shows that the WEA views charter schools as a threat to unions, not to education. They are not looking at this through an equity-based, student-first lens, but rather through a lens based on the best interests of teachers and their union as an institution. As a result, the WEA has pulled together a group of unions and of predictably supportive grantees to protect their own self-interest, disregarding the specific needs of the students they serve.

A hearing last November before a courtroom packed full of charter teachers, parents and students saw a slew of procedural decisions, almost all of which fell in favor of charters.

The primary question at hand was, do these unions have standing in this case? Can they even claim they are somehow impacted by the charter law?

The judge struck down most of the plaintiffs as not having taxpayer standing, but left an opening for them to come back with a named party leading the way with a rewritten complaint. They will basically return as individuals representing their unions and organizations.

One claim from suit is that the ALE designation was more workaround than satisfactory solution, and the plaintiffs wanted to make sure the ALE wasn’t an option again. Judge John H. Chun said essentially said he considered this too much supposition and too little substance — that he wouldn’t rule on something that wasn’t presently an issue.

Chun also threw out the plaintiffs’ red-herring claim that charters shouldn’t be funded before we have met the McCleary mandate to fully fund our broader public school system, calling it speculation at best. The state legislature will have to to do something about McCleary no matter what, and charters are unlikely to impact McCleary as the two are funded separately, pulling from separate pots of money.

All of this is building toward another hearing on Jan. 27, 2017, to debate whether charters are constitutional and whether the money funding them is still somehow affecting the common fund. They will argue the meat of the case and the judge will rule. And then we’ll keep on going.

So, the existing handful of charter schools continue to operate, offering much-needed school choice to hundreds of families in different communities. They will keep moving forward as well and keep running good schools. The proof, ultimately, will be in the pudding. Great schools will overcome great opposition in time.

In the meantime, even as the charter school association and its attorneys work to take the burden of this distraction off the schools and their students, the environment created by this union battle axe remains unsettling for all involved. It’s scary for families, nerve-wracking for teachers and administrators. It’s exhausting.

But we will keep on moving. Change isn’t always comfortable, but the status quo won’t do any longer. We need more and better school choices for our students, and we need better outcomes in our traditional schools. If the price for that is being exhausted, so it goes.

Washington Attorney General joins web of charter lawsuits, asks court to throw out political arguments

The web of lawsuits around Washington State's charter schools has gotten tighter and more tangled.

Parents and students involved in the charter school suit stand behind lead attorney Rob McKenna at Tuesday's press conference.

Led by Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office, the State of Washington filed a motion today to dismiss two of the plaintiffs’ core arguments in El Centro de la Raza v. Washington, another lawsuit filed against charters under the leadership of the Washington Education.

"Those arguments are (1) an attempt to tie charter public schools to the state’s underfunding of basic public education, which is a separate matter that is under active supervision by the state Supreme Court, and (2) an attack on last academic year’s operation of charter public schools, an argument that a court cannot entertain because, in these circumstances, the plaintiffs’ argument can only be read as assuming too much or too little, too late," said the Washington State Charter Schools Association in a statement, "In either case, both arguments are also meritless."

Today’s filing follows yesterday’s announcement that 12 families representing the charter sector filed a collective motion of their own calling for the dismissal all of the organizational plaintiffs named in the lawsuit.

"The motion was filed on the grounds that the advocacy organizations are merely attempting to rehash policy arguments in a courtroom by recasting them as constitutional concerns – policy arguments that were decided at both ballot box and in the 2016 Legislative session," said the WA Charters statement. "The Washington Education Association, the League of Women Voters and El Centro De La Raza are among the lobbying groups the intervenors are asking the court to dismiss."

The state’s existing charter public schools opened after voters passed a ballot initiative in 2012. When the Washington Supreme Court identified a glitch in the voter-approved charter school law that conflicted with the state constitution, a bipartisan group of lawmakers studied, vetted, and in March 2016 passed a bill specifically designed to address the Supreme Court’s concerns. Legal experts from both sides of the aisle, including non-partisan staff attorneys, combed through SB 6194 to ensure it would pass constitutional muster and restore the will of the voters by creating a path for charter public schools’ long-term success.

Washington’s operating charter public schools began their second school year this month, having quickly become a vital part of Washington’s public education system for the students and families they serve. The schools already are making a quantifiable difference in the lives of hundreds of Washington families, particularly in historically under-resourced and under-served communities.

More than 67 percent of charter public school students in Washington are students of color, as compared to 43 percent of non-charter public school students statewide. In addition, approximately two-thirds of charter public school students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals. At four of Washington’s charter public schools, that number exceeds 70 percent.

Charter schools are a type of public school, approved and overseen by a state or district authorizer. Like all public schools, they do not charge tuition, they are open to all students, and they are publicly funded. However, charter public schools are held more accountable for showing improved student achievement. In exchange for greater accountability, teachers and principals are given more flexibility to customize their teaching methods and curriculum to improve student learning.

 

Senate Joins House in Voting to Save Charter Schools

By Matt Halvorson

Every day this school year, every kid in every charter school classroom in the state has studied and learned without knowing if his or her school would be allowed to stay open.

Every day this year, every teacher in every charter school classroom in the state has worked hard to teach every single kid, all while knowing the schools that pay them might be forced to shut their doors.

Every day this year, each one of the 1,100 charter school students in our state -- including some in my neighborhood, and probably in yours -- have heard the daily expressions of systemic and overt racism and classism directed at them and their school.

They have felt attacked and unwanted by their own communities and their own state, even as a wall of teachers, administrators, parents, friends, advocates and legislators did their best to shield them and fight for them.

But today, finally, we are on the verge of something different.

The Washington State Senate voted in favor of equity in education today, approving a bill by a 26-23 margin that will save public charters schools and create a long-term path for their success.

The vote comes on the heels of yesterday's bipartisan show of support in the House. The bill now heads to Gov. Jay Inslee's desk to be signed into law, finally putting to rest this last-ditch effort on the part of the state teacher's union and other stagnant education organizations to block charter schools from gaining a foothold in the state.

“We expect Gov. Inslee will respect the bipartisan legislature’s vote, respect the will of the voters, and most of all," said Tom Franta, CEO of the Washington State Charter Schools Association, "respect the parents and students who worked so hard for this victory today on behalf of not just their schools, but every kid statewide.”

Advocates mounted a powerful grassroots campaign which, coupled with a paid effort, called steadily on legislators to reinstate the 2012 law overturned by the State Supreme Court last fall.

More than 1,100 families already benefitting from public charter schools were joined by many more voices from Yakima to Walla Walla, Spokane to West Seattle, all advocating for equity in education.

The bill that passed today reflects that effort but does contain some clear compromises that differ from Initiative 1240. The bill eliminates charter school access to local levy monies, and it removes provisions authorizing the conversion of traditional public schools into charter schools.

Still, this bill's passage represents a resounding success for low-income families and families of color in Washington State. And we may see the charter school movement bloom even brighter for having gone survived this assault.

Many, many of those 1,100 students and parents and siblings became activists and advocates in recent months. At first it was simply a fight for themselves and their own schools, but they became part of something much bigger.

For all the dark sides this unconstitutionality business has evoked, and for all the ignorance and fear it has revealed, this is at least one glimmer of a silver lining. In the midst of its shadowy maneuvering, maybe the WEA and its fellow clingers-on to the status quo accidentally activated the Puget Sound's next generation of homegrown advocates for equity in education.

I hope they did. It would serve them right.

Second Bill to Save Charters Proposed in Washington State Legislature

A second bill to save charter schools was floated in the Washington State Senate yesterday.

Proposed by Sen. Steve Litzow (R-Mercer Island) and Rep. Eric Pettigrew (D-Renton), the bipartisan bill would use state lottery earnings to fund charter schools. It joins a bill proposed earlier this week by Sen. Andy Billig (D-Spokane) and Sen. Michael Baumgartner (R-Spokane) that would assign more control over charters to local elected school boards, giving the legislature at least two options to consider to save the state's charter schools during the January session.

As reported by John Higgins of the Seattle Times:

"Their proposal would, among other things, direct charter-school funding to come from the state’s Opportunity Pathways Account, which uses state lottery money for early childhood education, higher-education grants, scholarships and other programs aimed at innovation.
The Washington State Supreme Court ruled Sept. 4 that the charter-school law is unconstitutional because charter schools aren’t “common” schools and therefore aren’t entitled to public money exclusively intended for those schools.
Lottery revenue isn’t restricted to common schools, but the high court also ruled that lawmakers couldn’t use money from other general-fund accounts because the state can’t tell which dollars come from which sources."

This bill has garnered significantly more support from charter school proponents because it offers a pathway to save the entire charter school system without sacrificing control over operations.

“We applaud Sens. Litzow, Fain, Mullet, and Hobbs for their commitment to reinstate the will of the voters by fixing the mess that threatens to close public charter schools," said Tom Franta, CEO of the Washington State Charter Schools Association (WA Charters). "Today’s proposal demonstrates legislators' commitment to Washington families and students. We are especially pleased to see lawmakers from both sides of the aisle come together around a solution that maintains the ability of all parents in Washington—not just those in some districts—to choose the public school that best fits the needs of every child.”

Litzow has been a steadfast champion of charter schools.

“Public charter schools provide a meaningful opportunity for students—especially minority children from low-income families—who are disproportionately failed by Washington’s inequitable public school system,” said Litzow, chairman of the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee, in his announcement of the bill yesterday. “Education quality—and inequality—is the paramount concern for students, parents, teachers and lawmakers, as well as voters, who made Washington the 42nd state to allow charter schools. No single reform will alone ensure we can meet Washington’s duty to provide a high-quality education to all children. Historic investments for public education in 2015, the expansion of charter schools and other research-based reforms supporting our most at-risk students will help close the state’s opportunity gap and strengthen the entire public education system.”

The proposed bill will receive a public hearing in the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday, Jan. 12, the second day of the 2016 legislative session, at 1:30 p.m.