Here's the real reason people oppose charter schools in Washington State

Here's the real reason people oppose charter schools in Washington State

Yet again, charter schools and the principle of school choice prevailed this week in Washington’s courts.

Great, wonderful, fine, etc. This is important, but at the same time, we’ve had this conversation before. It’s time to dig deeper.

Why has all this been happening? Moving beyond talking points and rhetoric, why have people and organizations really been fighting charter schools so vehemently?

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It doesn't need to be anybody's fault, but our teachers unions need to evolve

It doesn't need to be anybody's fault, but our teachers unions need to evolve

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Classroom teachers have always been the biggest agents for change in our education system. Most reform ideas have come from teachers, who shine a light on inequity and invent new ways of organizing schools and delivering instruction.

Teachers unions, on the other hand, are increasingly out of step with their younger members and often stand in the way of change that would both help students and support teachers. If they want to remain relevant, they should read Coggins’ book.

Today, teachers unions are stuck in an antiquated, industrial-style model, focused on working conditions, job protections, wages and benefits. We all agree teachers should be well-compensated and work in healthy, productive environments. After all, teachers work where children learn.

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SOAR Academy in Tacoma ‘blows the roof off the myths’ about charter schools

SOAR Dancers Get Up
SOAR Academy students get up and get down during Erricka Turner's dance class in September 2017.

SOAR Academy students get up and get down during Erricka Turner's dance class in September 2017.

Walk through the front doors of SOAR Academy these days and you’ll find the building teeming with life and energy, like a dream realized.

In many ways, that’s what the public elementary school in Tacoma represents: the manifestation of a set of beliefs and ideas about what’s possible in public education.

SOAR Academy’s founders sought from the outset to design a public school that would reach students being neglected by the larger system, those who are typically on the wrong end of the opportunity and achievement gaps. 

Just two years after first opening its doors to students, those ideas have become a way of life at SOAR Academy, and the dreams of a nurturing, equitable school open to all have become reality for an engaged, grateful community of students and families.

“Here at SOAR we’ve seen tremendous growth and a fulfillment of the whole concept and vision of the alternatives and options that charter schools can provide in a publicly funded setting,” said Dr. Thelma Jackson, chair of the SOAR Academy Board of Directors. “Those of us that have been with SOAR from the very beginning, we’re just pleased as punch to see the school, to see the full classrooms, the waiting list. As I was driving up, just the smiles on the children’s and parents’ faces — they’re glad to be here! They’re here by choice.”

In many ways and from many angles, that’s the key word here: choice.

More than 70 percent of SOAR students identify as students of color, and Black students make up 56 percent of the student body. Fourteen percent receive special education services, and at least 12 percent are homeless or housing insecure. They all chose SOAR Academy, and they did so despite the hyper-political climate that surrounds the charter school sector.

School choice can be an especially foggy issue in Washington, where propaganda and repeated legal attacks led by the Washington Education Association — the state’s teachers union — have attempted to undermine the ability of schools like SOAR to work hard and innovate in an earnest effort to close the gaps created by our traditional public school system. In spite of that, many parents are seeing SOAR for what it is: an ambitious, free, public alternative that just might work for their student where other schools have fallen short.

“We’ve been up against so much ‘fake news’ about what charters are and aren’t, and we’re defying all of that,” Jackson said. “Anytime they say, ‘Oh, they won’t take kids of color; oh, they won’t take special needs kids; oh, they’ll cream the crop,’ [SOAR Academy] just blows the roof off of all those myths. And against all those odds, SOAR is thriving. The kids are thriving.”

Far from creaming, SOAR’S school leader Jessica Stryczek readily acknowledges that many of the school’s students arrived having already experienced such significant trauma as abuse, neglect and domestic violence. Yet thanks to a trauma-informed approach to restorative justice, not a single SOAR student was suspended or expelled last year.

In Seattle Public Schools, on the other hand, disproportionate discipline rates show up from the very beginning, as even kindergarteners of color are suspended and expelled (yes, expelled from kindergarten!) at a rate far beyond their white peers.

Seventy-seven percent of the student body at SOAR is eligible for free or reduced lunch as well, so community meals are available to all students through the community eligibility pool.

SOAR’s staff, meanwhile, reflects the diversity of its student body. More than half the staff at SOAR are people of color, Jackson says, upending yet another myth.

“The traditional line is, ‘Oh, we’d like to hire them, but we can’t find them.’ So, where are the charter schools finding [teachers of color]?” Jackson asks. “And again, they are here by choice. They’re not here through involuntary transfers and the dance of the lemons and all that stuff.”

Enough people have chosen SOAR now that the school’s journey from vision to reality is all but complete, and the early results are showing that the young charter school is delivering on its promise.

In addition to a joyful atmosphere in a building full of well-cared-for elementary students, the school is home to impressive academic rigor as well. Just last year, more than 70 percent of students showed accelerated growth, testing beyond national grade-level expectations on the STAR Early Literacy assessment.

“The concept has taken on a life of its own,” Jackson said. “The proof is in the pudding.”

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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We know the Trump administration doesn't care about education. Will Washington State step up to save our kids?

Each state is currently in the process of establishing a comprehensive education and accountability plan under ESSA, which they'll submit to the federal government for approval.

These plans will determine, among other things, how each state will address its opportunity gaps, how they'll measure progress toward closing those gaps, and how they will help struggling schools.

Our nation has been built on a sturdy framework of systemic racism, and that reality is quite evident in our public school system. If we want to close gaps and change outcomes for low-income students and students of color, this is where it begins.

States don't have a great track record of upholding human rights when they don't "have to," however. The federal government has been more likely to carve out new protections for human and civil rights than the states. Of course, those protections are always gradual and reluctant, but it's still typically the federal government leading the way with policy that leads to implemented changes at the state level.

Examples do exist, though, of states going out on a limb in the name of equity, and those bold moves have a way of impacting the nation. Washington State did that for marriage equality earlier this decade. We have a chance to do the same for educational equity if our leadership makes brave, potentially unpopular decisions during this critical time.

The state superintendent's office in Washington (OSPI) has convened an Accountability System Workgroup to work on these issues. Under the direct leadership of Michaela Miller and Ben Rarick, the committee currently consists of a whopping 39 members.

As I understand, OSPI promised to reduce the size of the workgroup, but this promise was then broken. This is especially problematic because many members of the group are redundant in their role and voting interests, allowing the WASA/AWSP/WSSDA contingent to largely vote as a bloc, effectively negating any diversity of opinion or perspective in terms of outcomes.

In the end it will mean district staff are unchecked in designing a system for holding themselves accountable to student outcomes.

Our state has appalling opportunity gaps along racial and socioeconomic lines, and it is time we held our education system to a substantially higher standard than the level of systemic oppression it's currently operating.

We know the current fascist-leaning federal administration doesn’t care about public education. We need OSPI to refuse to participate in perpetuating the failure of our kids. The time is now or never.

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.

 

Charter school parents, brace yourself, the haters have returned

Charter school students and their families had an epic battle to keep their schools open this year. In 2015 they narrowly survived set backs after the Washington Supreme Court deemed charter schools unconstitutional.

They survived relentless attacks from district teachers.

And, they endured merciless scorn from Seattle's privileged parents who want all kids to stay put in the traditional school district (even when those kids are red lined into bad schools many families with resources have abandoned).

Now, the haters are back for more.

King 5 is reporting the Washington Education Association is planning another wave of attacks on charter school families. 

Charter school critics, including Gov. Inslee, say these schools take public money without enough public oversight.

To that Jessica Garcia, a charter school mom, says:

"What is more public than parents having a say in where their kids go and their tax dollars being spent? They're accountable to us and so that's the most oversight -- before, you walk into the general public school and you ask them where are you putting the money … they can't tell you. This is the most accountability that I have ever been granted, as a parent and as a taxpayer, and the oversight is amazing."

If only these battles were really about students and families. They're not. Stay tuned.