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Will the Voice of Washington Parents, Students, and Voters on Charters Prevail?

(Why Washington’s May 17th Supreme Court Oral Arguments Matter)

By Bing Howell, Chief External Affairs Officer, Washington State Charter Schools Association
Guest Blogger

Bing Howell, Washington State Charter School Association - League of Education Voters

Bing Howell

I remember reading the disheartening news about the Washington’s state Supreme Court decision to overturn the legality of charter schools in 2015 from afar. I was aghast.  At the time, I was living and working in the K-12 education space in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but I was closely following the developments in Washington for several reasons:

  1. Public opinion had spoken in favor of charter public schools: Washington voters had passed Initiative 1240, an initiative designed to establish a charter public school sector in Washington.
  2. Washington’s charter law was strong: Washington legislators had taken advantage of the 41 other states that had authorized charters to create best-in-class statutes and regulations to govern charter schools and their growth across the state.
  3. There was strong demand from parents, who were expressing the urgent need for high-quality public school options for their children: Over 1,000 students and families eagerly enrolled to attend new charters in Seattle, Tacoma, and Spokane.
  4. High quality school leaders were leading the movement: You would be hard pressed to find any state in the country starting off with a stronger group of pioneering leaders than in Washington. An army of educational leaders from across the state and country joined forces to make a bold vision for Washington’s new public school sector a reality.

These seemed like the right conditions for a strong charter sector that would respond to Washington’s educational inequities and provide struggling students with new, high-quality, and innovative school models…

…yet even with all of this, on September 4, 2015, due to a funding glitch, the voter-approved law was overturned by the state Supreme Court. Following a parent and student-led campaign to show legislators how their charter schools were already making a meaningful difference, Washington state legislators worked hard to successfully fix the glitch, and with bipartisan support, passed a strong new charter public school law, thereby ensuring that families would continue to access these public school opportunities.

Fast forward to 2018: Blown away by the work taking place here, I was compelled to move to Washington to be a part of the momentum that will continue to transform the lives of youth (and their families) across the state. Being IN the movement provides a different vantage point to the aforementioned points. The current schools are in their third year serving students and families. The burgeoning sector is gaining steam:

  • Families are increasingly demanding these schools: With 2,400 students being served across 10 schools, 2 new schools joining the movement in August, and over 1,000 new students slated to join charter schools in 2018 (and many more on waiting lists), the word is spreading about what these schools are doing, and parents are listening.
  • The schools are working: The law intended for charter schools to enroll and serve at-risk student populations. It is doing just that! A sizable majority of Washington’s charter public school students are students of color and students from families and communities who do not have adequate support and resources.

Charter public schools are serving these students well. Although the sector is young and still learning, it’s academic start is promising:

  • At Rainier Prep, in 2016-17 where 94% of students were students of color, 68% of Black/African American 6thgraders and 66% of Latino 6th graders at Rainier Prep achieved a proficient score in math, as compared to 28% proficiency among their Black/African American peers and 30% among their Latino peers statewide.
  • At PRIDE Prep in Spokane, which serves a higher than average percentage of students with special education needs, 45% of 8thgraders receiving special education services at PRIDE achieved proficiency in math – this is quadruple the state and district average for proficiency among 8th grade students receiving special education.

(For more data highlighting school successes from the first year of state test data, see here.)

  • The policy has only strengthened: Washington’s charter school law is one of the best in the nation – we are building our sector on a very sound foundation.
  • The leadership moving this sector is growing: One of the best parts of working in Washington is that I am consistently blown away by the school leaders and teachers in this sector – their commitment to excellence in supporting their students and families is unparalleled. The strength in leadership is evidenced by the increasing list of teacher candidates who are looking to join the movement. More strong educators will only mean increased momentum for school models that are already doing great work.

One would think that this strong start would be enough to allow these educators to continue to run their life-changing public schools, but this isn’t the case. Since 2016, the charter law has now been approved by voters, affirmed by the state legislature, and upheld by the King County Superior Court. Even with this, anti-charter lobby groups have filed another lawsuit, El Centro de la Raza v. Washington, seeking to invalidate Washington’s charter public schools. The culmination of this case is May 17, and a lot is on the line. This Thursday, oral arguments are scheduled in Olympia where Washington’s state Supreme Court will hear supporting and opposing charter narratives.

Washington’s charters are closing opportunity and achievement gaps and making a quantifiable difference for students who are struggling in traditional settings. We feel confident that our law passes constitutional muster, and remain hopeful that the state Supreme Court’s final decision is one that puts Washington students’ and families’ needs first.

 

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Posted in: Charter Schools

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