Washington state needs charter schools

Editor’s note: Washington state is one of only nine states that don’t have charter schools. But voters can change that in November if they approve Initiative 1240, which will allow up to 40 charters statewide over five years. Chris Eide, who heads a Seattle-based ed reform group called Teachers United, tells redefinED in this emailed Q&A that it’s the students who struggle the most who will benefit if voters say yes.

This is the fourth time Washington voters will go to the polls to vote on charter schools. They said no the first three times. Why will this time be different?

The last time voters looked at the option of charter schools in our state was eight years ago. Over that time, we have been unable to significantly address the needs of our struggling students. Moreover, the families of those students are often without high-quality options that can adapt to and address the needs of their children. Additionally, over the past eight years, high-performing charter schools across the country have demonstrated success for struggling students. Families in 41 other states have this option now, and Washington voters are faced with an easy decision to help struggling students.  

Why does Washington state need charter schools?

Like other states, Washington has had a difficult time addressing the needs of struggling students. In some schools, nearly 40 percent of students are dropping out and far too many who do graduate are not prepared for college or their career. Public charter schools would be an option that will allow those students and families to attend a school that might better address their needs. If we hope to have more of our students graduating high school prepared for life after K-12, we are going to need all of the high-quality options that we can get.

You pointed out in a recent Seattle Times column that Initiative 1240 will only allow high-performing charters. How is that defined? And why did you stress that distinction?

Charter schools have been in existence across the country for 20 years. Over that time, statewide legislation of charter schools has been varied. In some states, you have very permissive laws that allow a wide array of charter school models to be operated by a wide array of individuals and organizations. In absence of strong regulation and oversight, many of these schools have failed their students. Other states have learned the lesson that policy matters and strong accountability and oversight are required to better ensure success for our students. Initiative 1240 is modeled on the most successful state laws to ensure the highest performing schools for students who need it the most.

It’s no secret that Bill Gates and a member of the Walton family of Wal-Mart fame (among other wealthy contributors) have contributed a lot of money to this effort. How much do you worry about this playing into the hands of opponents who will say this is an attempt to “privatize public schools”? And how do you respond to that argument?

Charter schools are public schools – there is no way around that. These schools are overseen by local school boards or by a bipartisan state commission that is publicly appointed and accountable. The accountability of these schools will be traced directly to public officials. Additionally, operators of public charter schools in Washington must be nonprofit and non-sectarian. The argument that I-1240 would “privatize” public schools in any way is completely false and misleading.

The funders of this initiative join with over 350,000 voters across the state who signed a petition to place the option of public charter schools on the ballot in November.

Tell me a little bit about the group that you head, Teachers United. Why did you form this group? What does it do?

Teachers United was started by myself and a small group of teachers in Seattle and Tacoma who believe that 100 percent of our students can graduate high school prepared for college or their career. We can do better and we have to do better. We as teachers have a strong role to play in advocating for policies that clearly benefit students and get us closer to that goal. We have about 250 teachers in our organization, and over 30 have now assumed leadership opportunities outside of their classroom from positions in their union to boards of nonprofit education advocacy organizations and PACs. By getting the voice of teachers into the education reform discussion, we think we can change the game for kids. 

Why is Teachers United involved with the charter initiative?

Back in December, our board (which is solely comprised of teachers) voted to support many of the conditions within a piece of charter school legislation that was up for hearing in the House and Senate education committees. Our member teachers volunteered to drive down to Olympia in the season’s worst snowstorm to testify in favor of the bill. We worked together with partners to have 10 different teachers visit charter schools across the country. We felt informed on the issue and convinced of the need for high-quality options for struggling students.

Our support for  Initiative 1240 will be officially voted on at our next board meeting in September.

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BY Ron Matus

Ron Matus is director for policy and public affairs at Step Up for Students and a former editor of redefinED. He joined Step Up in February 2012 after 20 years in journalism, including eight years as an education reporter with the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times). Ron can be reached at rmatus@stepupforstudents.org or (727) 451-9830. Follow him on Twitter @RonMatus1 and on facebook at facebook.com/redefinedonline.