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

In yet another ruling in favor of charter schools in Washington, the state’s Supreme Court ruled yesterday in El Centro de la Raza vs. Washington that public charter schools are constitutional, upholding their place in the public education system. Again.

In case you haven’t been paying attention to the costly, highly political, highly unnecessary legal battle over charter schools in Washington State, here’s a quick summary: voters passed a statewide law to implement charters in 2012. In September 2015, just as the first charter schools were opening, the Washington Education Association (WEA) and a herd of public school traditionalists led the state Supreme Court to declare the charter law unconstitutional based on a particular funding provision.

Since then, it’s been back and forth, with annual court rulings in favor of charter schools, followed each time by new lawsuits, by more legal loopholes threaded with political needles by the teachers unions and their cronies.

This mural inside Summit Olympus, a charter school in Tacoma, was painted by a student.

This mural inside Summit Olympus, a charter school in Tacoma, was painted by a student.

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

Charter opponents, I’m realizing, continue to discuss this issue as though our traditional public schools are acceptable as they are, as though our traditional public schools haven’t been the primary delivery system for the school-to-prison pipeline and a century-long history of inequitable opportunities and outcomes based on race and family income.

The reality locally is that Seattle Public Schools have been aware of their galling opportunity gaps along racial lines for 70-plus years now, yet the disparities have only gotten worse.

We need change. That’s obvious, right?

I would think so, but there’s a strange dissonance happening, with people acknowledging the opportunity gaps in our schools, yet also continuing to cling to the status quo as the only way. They want to close the opportunity gaps, they say, but they oppose each individual thing that might actually make a dent in those gaps.

For example, take a look at the quotes in the Seattle Times article about the ruling:

Rich Wood, a spokesman for the WEA: “Local residents still want to know that the school in their community is accountable to the community itself,” he said. “That’s the way we do it in 295 school districts.”

Well, yes, but how many of those 295 districts are truly delivering an equitable education to all students, regardless of race, income, gender or any other inexcusably discriminatory factors? Is there a single district in Washington State without an opportunity gap? Might it make sense that some of us are looking for something different?

The Times repeatedly referred to folks like Wood, by the way, as “charter opponents,” which is strange because there were no “public school opponents” mentioned at all. Wood actually went as far as to say that the entire WEA was “disappointed.” Why would he and his union have such an investment in fighting against this particular type of public school?

Or take this, from Supreme Court Justice Barbara Madsen, who wrote, “Charter schools, which purport to be open to all students and to provide a general education, are exempt from many of the requirements of our state public school system,” as if that were a bad thing.

Justice Charles Wiggins, meanwhile, wrote that, “The lead opinion attempts to trivialize the fact that the charter school act gives powers to the charter school commission and school district authorizers without giving any oversight of these powers to the superintendent.”

I disagree, personally, that it’s being trivialized. Of course charters are exempt from many of the requirements of the state public school system! I find it one of the glorious aspects of charter schools. That essentially defines how a charter school differs from a traditional public school. Why is that your concern, as opposed to the 295 inequitable districts under the superintendents purview?

Seattle School Board member Zachary DeWolf actually seems to get it, even as he tries not to.

“‘While I am deeply frustrated by this decision by our state’s Supreme Court, this is the exact moment our state’s lawmakers need to get back to work to actually fully fund public education’ so that parents don’t feel the need to turn to charters,” he said.

I agree. If you don’t like charters, make your traditional public school system so incredibly good — and equitably so! — that charters are irrelevant. But DeWolf, unfortunately, is operating from the flawed premise that putting more money into a broken system is going to solve anything except fully funding a discriminatory system.

It feels like these “charter opponents” want to put me and my family in a box and tell us we’re happy with their schools whether we like it or not. Our neighborhood public school is Emerson Elementary, a school with challenges that have been long neglected by the state and the district. By fighting against school choice, these folks are telling me that we deserve a school like Emerson because of where we live. We don’t deserve any better, or any agency, and we don’t deserve the opportunity to choose out unless we can pay for it.

Taking that a step further, if I recognize, as I do, that Seattle Public Schools discipline students of color — specifically Black students — at disproportionately higher rates than white students, and is providing different opportunities and expectations for students of color than their white peers, even finding a different school within the district isn’t enough.

A different public school under the oversight of the same decision-makers who have created and still perpetuate the inequity is just a different installment within the same unacceptable system. It’s not enough. It’s Whack-a Mole.

So, based on a belief that public school should be truly for everyone, and on an understanding that our current system is not, charter schools have emerged as an option for parents who can’t afford private school, for families who do believe in the ideals of public education but need something different for their child than the traditional schools are providing. Charters at least allow everyone to make a choice, instead of reserving that primarily for the children of adults with money and privilege.

When Seattle School Board chair Leslie Harris says she’s not “personally worried” that this ruling will lead to the creation of more charter schools, which she has led the board in actively trying to restrict, I am confused, I guess. I’m not "worried" either — not about that.

But why does she feel the need to say that? Why does she see charters as a threat? And why doesn't she feel "worried" about sending all the kids of color in her district, or all the kids whose parents don't make a ton of money, into schools that have always discriminated against them?

It doesn't make sense... unless, despite what they're all saying, all of these people believe our public school system is actually just fine the way it is.

Then everything falls into place.

None of the measures to close the opportunity gap have worked in Seattle because the people in charge don’t actually want things to change. No matter what they say, what they do shows they value comfort and the status quo over vulnerable students and families.

That finally does seem like something to worry about.

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