connect them looking backwards.
― Steve Jobs
The debate about the value and role of charter schools in general, and I-1240 in particular, will continue for many months, if not years. In spite of Contempt of Court charges and daily fines faced by the Legislature, that debate is likely to dominate the education agenda and overshadow finding solutions to McCleary during the 2016 legislative session. As Rep. Chad Magendanz stated on his Facebook page:
1. What about the timing?
Charter school supporters were aghast at the timing of the Court’s decision, coming on the Friday before Labor Day, with eight new charter schools scheduled to open the following week. That criticism is understandable given the impact on 1,300 students whose academic lives were thrown into uncertainty by such late timing.
There has been little, if any, criticism focused on the eight new schools that went blithely forward, knowing full well that the Court had not yet decided their future. I doubt that any other business would risk a start-up venture in the face of such uncertainty, and yet, these eight new schools were moving full speed ahead. Where was the public outrage regarding their actions in light of what occurred? And were they just caught up in the excitement of a new venture, or was this a calculated plan to make sure there were student faces at the center of this debate?
2. Who is paying for the media campaign and what do they stand to gain?
The previous question became much less theoretical in recent weeks as a series of ads featuring disenfranchised students filled TV commercial breaks across the state. My first question when I saw these ads was who is paying for them? That was quickly followed by curiosity about what they had to gain from such a significant investment. Clearly, the Washington charter school initiative has attracted big dollars from its supporters. According to the Public Disclosure Commission, Initiative 1240 was supported by over $11.4 million from a few wealthy individuals, while the opposition raised only $714,351. Maybe that investment, and the more recent public relations campaign, is purely motivated by philanthropy. Or as Deep Throat suggested in All the President’s Men, perhaps we should follow the money.
One needn’t look any farther than Forbes magazine for a clue about a possible motivation. In an article entitled Charter School Gravy Train Runs Express to Fat City, author Addison Wiggin describes why charter school investment is booming:
3. What about the recent solution created to support charter school students?
On Dec. 3, a memorandum was released by State Superintendent Randy Dorn which outlined a plan to transition existing charter school students into Alternative Learning Experience (ALE) programs. The next day, The Spokesman-Review reported that several charter schools were exploring that type of arrangement with Mary Walker School District.
Under the ALE rules, Mary Walker could contract with the existing charter schools to fund with public school dollars the program they are already providing. This approach could serve all of the 1,300 students currently enrolled. The obvious question is, if that’s possible within existing laws and regulations, why does Washington state need charter schools to provide these options? That is one of the many points raised by charter school opponents during each of the four elections.
4. How can the Legislature provide a “fix” for charter schools?
Soon after the Court’s ruling, disgruntled legislators on both sides of the aisle began discussing a legislative fix. There was even talk of a special session to tackle that issue, but Gov. Inslee didn’t bite on those requests. There is little doubt, however, that this will be a major focus during the upcoming 2016 legislative session. Given that likelihood, one might ask, what is the proposed fix?
The Court was clear that to receive public funds, charter schools must be “subject to and under the control of qualified voters of the school district” (pg. 10). In response to the supporters’ request for reconsideration, the Court affirmed their original decision but deleted footnote 10 on page 11. A recent editorial in The Olympian cited that change as the opening needed for the legislative fix:
5. What will the Court’s response be to a “legislative fix”?
Regardless of the problems faced by any legislative attempt to “fix” I-1240, the consensus in Olympia seems to be that such legislation will happen in the 2016 session. Two questions come to mind about that possibility. The first is whether the Court will accept any solution that doesn’t address the underlying elements of I-1240 they have ruled unconstitutional. The logical approach would be to make all charter schools fall under the governance of a local school board, but it’s doubtful that charter school proponents would favor that solution.
A related question is how any legislative action on charter schools might be viewed by the Court in light of their ongoing efforts to reach a resolution of the McCleary decision. The Legislature is currently being fined $100,000 a day in Contempt of Court penalties for their failure to produce the McCleary plan ordered by the Court. If the Legislature doesn’t provide that plan, and yet finds a way to fund charter schools, the Court may have something more to say in terms of additional sanctions. While there seems to be some progress in creating a plan, it is very unlikely that the Legislature will identify the necessary funding in 2016 that is needed for the Court to believe their 2018 deadline will be met.
Regardless of how one answers these and other questions about Washington’s charter school initiative, is seems clear this topic will dominate legislative discussions in the near term, and could result in additional opinions from our state Supreme Court in the months that follow. Given that fact, I hope our citizens are willing to go beyond the slick TV ads and probe more deeply into the issues that underlie this important policy debate.