By Rob McKenna and Patrick D’Amelio
For The Herald
The Herald Editorial Board published an editorial on May 23 calling for continued support for charter public schools, but erroneously suggested that support needs to come in the form of a legislative funding fix.
While we appreciate the board’s call for continued legislative support for charter public schools, we want to set the record straight about what is being debated. The crux of the charter public school debate in Washington is no longer about financing. Washington’s updated Charter Schools Act, passed by a bipartisan Legislature in 2016, did just what the Herald Board asked — by creating a new funding mechanism for charter public schools in Washington state.
Additional speculation about the ampleness of funds simply distracts from the real question before the courts: Will they uphold the will of the voters, the Legislature and lower courts? The question lies not in the amount of money that is available should the sector boom, but whether or not our charter school law is constitutional. The voters of Washington, our state legislators, and the King County Superior Court certainly think so.
Charter public schools are financed by the lottery-funded Opportunity Pathways Account rather than the taxpayer-funded general fund, creating a separate stream of funding. Why is this necessary, when every other type of public school is financed from the General Fund? Our state constitution is clear that the general fund must fund our state’s common schools (the traditional public schools, governed by local school boards and funded in part from local school levies), but is also clear that the Legislature isn’t limited to providing just one form of public school.
Tribal Compact Schools, Running Start and most of the highly-capable student programs that our state— and we as taxpayers — support, fall outside the definition of common schools yet firmly inside the lines of public education. They all are financed from the state general fund. In 2017, the state’s funding for charter public schools was upheld by the King County Superior Court, and the question now is whether the state Supreme Court similarly will uphold the will of the voters and the hard work of our legislators.
So, although funding is an eye-catching issue, what’s more relevant is why our public education provides students and their families with options to traditional common schools.
On the morning of May 17, nearly 1,500 students, parents and teachers representing charter public schools from Spokane to Seattle stood on the steps of the legislative building in Olympia and shared their stories about struggle, hope and success. In many cases, these individuals — from Seattle charter public school students to Spokane parents — have been fighting for their public schools, and their right of access to a high quality public education, for more than three years.
That is the crux of the charter public school debate in Washington. It is a fight led by families who have won repeatedly at the ballot box, the Legislature and Superior Court in their aim to create and maintain one of the most effective, progressive charter school laws in the country. Arrayed against them are relentless opponents who would see that law struck down to achieve little more than political leverage.
The Charter Schools Act in Washington is designed to serve the most underserved communities in a state that boasts one of the widest achievement gaps by race and income in the country. As the Herald Editorial Board illustrated, 66 percent of charter public school students, on average, are students of color compared to 45 percent in traditional public schools, and 60 percent of charter students are from low-income households, compared to 43 percent in traditional schools. Reflecting the diversity of the students they serve, 36 percent of charter public school teachers are people of color, versus only 12 percent of teachers statewide.
And these schools are proving their success in terms of student achievement as well as demographic access. Though Washington’s charter sector is young, early outcomes show that students who have been typically left behind are rapidly reaching their grade-level metrics.
Charter schools are supported and attended by hundreds of teachers and families in the face of ongoing, politically driven legal challenges. They are creating tangible outcomes for students in a state that has struggled with educational equity. The debate around them focuses on the interests of lobbying organizations, when the focus should be on families and children.
Rarely have public schools drawn the level of support that charter public schools did on the morning of May 17. It’s time to respect the voices, and the reality, behind Washington’s burgeoning charter school sector, to change the conversation, and move it out of the courtroom — and into the classroom.
Rob McKenna is a former state attorney general. Patrick D’Amelio is CEO of the Washington State Charter Schools Association.