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Saved: How WA Parents, Students, Advocates and Educators Rescued Their Charter Schools

By Kate Stringer | April 4, 2016

Photo: Washington State Charter Schools Association
The Seventy Four reports on the Washington Supreme Court decision: Read our complete coverage
(Seattle, Washington) — As the Friday before spring break approached, students, parents, and educators in charter schools weren’t sure how to feel.
That’s because seven months ago, on another Friday before a holiday weekend, the Washington state Supreme Court dealt them a serious blow, ruling that the state’s brand new charter schools were unconstitutional.
Channeling the same anxiety, fear, and uncertainty conjured by the Labor Day weekend decision, supporters waited to see whether Gov. Jay Inslee would sign or veto the charter school bill for which they been campaigning for months.
On Friday, Inslee did neither. Instead, in a letter to Secretary of State Kim Wyman, the Democratic governor who is seeking a second term announced that he would allow the charter school bill to pass, but would not sign it.
“Despite my deep reservations about the weakness of the taxpayer accountability provisions, I will not close schools,” Inslee said in his statement to Wyman.
It was a political out not used in Washington since 1981. It allows the governor to walk a fine line between his two-time endorsement from the state’s teachers union, which opposes charters and brought the lawsuit that nearly killed them, and charter supporters who’ve pulled every advocacy lever they could to get Inslee to save their schools.
When it comes to policy, the end result is the same as if the governor had signed it. Washington’s eight charter schools will remain open next year. 
“I was speechless,” Summit Olympus charter school ninth-grader Tatiana Cueva recalled, after opening her email Friday to read the news. “I’ve been doing all this hard work and now it’s finally paid off.”
Students have been working relentlessly in a political and public relations campaign for their schools, at a level state lawmakers say they haven’t seen during their Olympia tenure. Many agree this grassroots activism from students and parents was the key to the charter bill’s success.
The legislation passed 58-39 in the House and 23-20 in the Senate. Twelve Democrats voted for the bill, earning critical across-the-aisle support for an issue some paint as conservative.
“The major determinate from a lot of supporters is the notion that nobody wanted to be responsible for seeing 1,000 kids lose their schools,” said Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, who led the effort to bring the charter legislation to the House floor. “Democrats included are committed to innovation in the school system to make sure everyone has the opportunity to learn in ways that suit them best.”
Charter schools invited legislators to visit their campuses, an offer which many took up as they debated charter bills. These visits influenced the votes of some legislators like Springer and Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah. In public testimony, Mullet considered himself a silent supporter of charter schools until he visited Summit Sierra. He walked into the school gymnasium and heard students chanting “Save our schools!” Normally accustomed to student apathy for learning, Mullet said this kind of passion moved him to support the legislation.
Visits didn’t change everyone’s mind, said Adel Sefrioui, founder and executive director of Excel Public Charter School. However, Sefrioui said he praises legislators for letting their visit inform their vote.
“It takes time to change hearts and minds,” Sefrioui said. “Maybe one day they’ll realize that charter schools are a good thing for the communities.”
Charter schools in Washington serve a diverse and vulnerable population: two-thirds are low-income students and 70 percent are students of color, according to the Washington State Charter Schools Association. Those students score between 15 to 20 percent lower on state tests than their white peers.
Students showed up to every public hearing during the legislative process to testify. They shared personal stories of how their charter schools gave them an educational lifeline and their first real inkling of going to college. They recounted their appreciation for smaller classroom sizes, attention from teachers and mentors, and unique classes like orchestra or computer science. During floor debates, legislators said this testimony from students was vote-changing.
“This (level of advocacy) is unusual,” said Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, who sponsored the charter bill in the Senate. “It was an extraordinary effort over a long time. We have bills where people come down for one day. But parents, teachers, and advocates were coming down repeatedly to make sure the bill came through.”
Summit Sierra ninth-grader Jalen Johnson said representatives approached him after their vote to say in-person meetings with him and his fellow students changed their opinion on charter schools. Johnson said he made the hour-long drive to Olympia with other students six or seven times to talk to lawmakers and attend rallies.
“I definitely think bipartisanship is only possible when you have a common goal and the common goal is the kids,” Johnson said. “Charter schools aren’t this big corporation out to make money on the backs of students like anti-charter school people will tell you. They’re here for the kids.”
The Washington State Charter Association, which according to the Seattle Times had spent over $1 million on its campaign by early February, and Act Now for Washington Students aired TV ads (including during all-important Seattle Seahawks games), led letter-writing efforts and phone-a-thons to legislators, and transported charter supporters across the state for rallies and public testimony. The charter association also released data in mid-February showing the state’s charter students excelling academically, some even surpassing national peers.
“We pulled lessons from other states but never did we think we’d be able to share best practices,” said the association’s spokeswoman Maggie Meyers. “The silver lining of this grueling experience has been this rallying of families across the state, of creating leaders amongst parents who have emerged as tremendous community organizers, and that students learned their role in the civics process.”
Most states allow charter schools, but Washington has a tumultuous history with them. Charters became legal via a 2012 voter referendum but only after several previously failed attempts. Washington is the only state to have legalized charter schools through the ballot box and the only state to have the entire legislation annulled by its Supreme Court, said Todd Ziebarth, senior vice president of state advocacy at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
The Supreme Court ruled charter schools unconstitutional, arguing they don’t fit a 1909 definition of a common school. Charter schools receive taxpayer dollars, the court said, without being held accountable to a locally elected school board. Instead, charters are held accountable to the state charter commission appointed by the governor, the Speaker of the House, and the President of the Senate.
Several bills appeared during the state’s 60-day legislative session to fix this issue. Some recommended that local school districts authorize and hold charters accountable. While the method works in some states, and currently works well for the schools in Spokane, opponents of the legislation argued that charter schools would be nonexistent in districts hostile to the concept.
The legislation that ultimately became law shifted the funding to the State Opportunity Pathways Account, which draws from lottery revenue rather than taxes. The bill also eradicates charter schools’ access to local levy dollars and makes it impossible for a public school to transition to a charter school.
The new law also changes the makeup of the state charter commission to include the state Board of Education chair and the state Superintendent of Public Instruction, both elected officials.
But legislators who voted against the bill questioned whether the revenue switch would hold up against legal challenges. Even charter supporters say they expect to see the issue back in court.
“We’ve been told (the bill) will be challenged,” Mullet said. “People who are philosophically opposed to charter schools would have challenged it even if every lawyer in the state was for charter schools.”
Advocates say they think the bill has the legal legs to withstand another court battle. Charter supporters, meanwhile, say they will move ahead with creating schools statewide (the 2012 voter referendum envisioned 40 schools opening over five years) and expanding existing ones.
But students warn of the frustration that comes from continuing legal battles over their education.
“It’s a little disheartening when you go to school and hear conversations about where you’re going to go to school next year if we’re not at Summit Sierra, or what the neighborhood schools are like,” Johnson said. “It really hurts your morale and self confidence.”
Watching the charter school fight was also difficult for teachers, many of whom had families and mortgages and weren’t sure whether their school would be around to employ them next fall. But witnessing the care given to special education students at Summit Sierra inspired education specialist Phil McGilton to remain there.
“If you believe deeply in something, you want to see it through,” he said.
The legislative showdown has brought attention to charter schools that might affect public perception of them, said Liv Finne, the Washington Policy Center’s education director.
“I actually think they’re going to have to think twice, the teachers union, before filing another lawsuit,” Finne said. “I think it’s arguable that this attack has made (charter schools) more powerful and more popular than ever.”
The Washington Education Association did not return a request for comment, but a spokesman for the union told the Seattle Times that their opposition to the legislation remains unchanged. The union believes state lawmakers should be focused on complying with a court-ordered mandate to equitably fund the public schools, that charters are not sufficiently accountable to taxpayers and they drain resources from traditional public schools.
Parent Shirline Wilson said one reason the advocacy worked was because it rejected that argument that charters and traditionals were locked in a rivalry.
“The thing most effective in this campaign was really not making it about us versus them,” she said. “It’s working constructively toward charter schools being a compliment, not a proposed silver bullet.”
The fight has also invigorated parents, who found themselves in positions of leadership as they made daily trips to Olympia.
Parent Jessica Garcia, who has been in Olympia every day of this legislative session, said she really saw the impact parent work was having mid-way through February. She said legislators started to recognize and approach her, asking her opinion on wording in the legislation.
“It made me feel like democracy actually might work,” Garcia said. “I just wanted to be able to look at my daughter and tell her I tried.”
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