Washington State House Democrats


Why I Opposed Charter School Bailout Bill

I heard from hundreds of constituents asking me to oppose the charter school bailout legislation which passed the House on March 9th, and only a few constituents asking me to support charter schools. But, I had a few dozen emails from non-constituents urging support.

Sadly, the dozens of emails urging me to support charter schools – most of which were mass email forward from charter school lobbying groups – did not include any urging me to support funding for the 1.1 million children in public schools, whose rights to better schools and education are being denied every day. Nor did any of these messages include any response that they would be contacting their own legislators to urge that they join me in finding the funding needed to lower class sizes, improve teacher pay, provide meaningful education for students with special needs, reduce the horrible overcrowding in our local schools, and to save innovative programs for at-risk youth.

The messages for charters included a few families from the NE and N Seattle portions of our district, who are sending a child to Summit Sierra Charter HS which opened in South Seattle, with the claimed mission, repeated in the charter schools’ political messaging and this lobbying effort, that this charter’s mission is “serving a diverse group of students and families in South Seattle, with a particular focus on the Southwest and Southeast communities, helping to close the significant demographic achievement gap.”

Summit sounds like a great private school, with limited enrollment, low class sizes and project based alternative learning curriculum. Indeed, about a third of its students transferred from private schools; and 29% of its students are not from those communities it claims to serve, but, rather from north Seattle neighborhoods, Queen Anne, Magnolia, and East Lake Washington communities such as Sammamish and Bothell. Far fewer Summit Charter students are in bilingual education or have Special Education needs or are low income than in the surrounding schools in SE Seattle. So, why are we spending public dollars to provide a private school experience for these students???

But, it offers those small classes and enrichment with our public dollars and zero accountability to any elected board or the Superintendent of Public Instruction. That is a fundamental constitutional flaw. The charter school bill is also constitutionally flawed – as I pointed out in my floor speech against passage – because it does require diverting funds from our constitutionally inadequately funding for public schools and local public school districts.

The people who spent millions in advertising and lobbying “to save our schools” refused to accept limiting this bill to apply to kids currently enrolled in the charter schools that have opened. I met with, and you saw ads featuring, parents and students hoping to keep their own school open. The legislation pushed, however, will leave even more kids in the same situation in schools that face getting shut down because this law will likely be struck down by the courts.

To each of the people who emailed me asking that I vote to fund charter schools, I wrote:

I hope that you sent emails to your Senators and Representatives – particularly Senators – urging them to provide the funding and revenue necessary to meet our fundamental moral and constitutional obligations for the 1.1 million children in our state’s public schools.

Otherwise, what you asked is moving funds to spend money on charter schools, which get to limit enrollment and offer innovative programs while the school districts they are located in can’t keep the doors open on similar, or more, innovative and needed special programs. Charters with limited enrollments would have more dollars per student than go to our students in overcrowded public schools in the same district with way too many students in each class.

The Senate majority sent this charter bill to us seeking 3 x as much money per charter school student as the state allocates for students in our public schools. The Senate Republicans refused to even consider increasing the starting pay of teachers or pay to lower class sizes in public schools as the Legislature promised and the Supreme Court has ordered. They refused to consider even closing loopholes for things like the total exemption agribusinesses have from all business or fuel taxes in order to fund teacher salaries or lower class sizes (which I proposed).

I hope you sent your legislators emails and called them urging support for those investments for 1.1 million students, not just advocating for funding charter schools.

Many school districts, including the ones I represent such as Seattle, Shoreline and Northshore, struggle to offer very good innovative and alternative public school programs.

But, even as charter school advocacy groups urged people to email me to fund charters as innovative school programs, there was a deafening silence from them when it comes to asking people to email legislators to provide the funding needed by districts to keep alternative and innovative programs open in our public schools – programs that serve far more students with far greater documented needs.

For example, Rainier Beach High school with 96% free and reduced lunch eligible students has an International Baccalaureate (IB) program that is having terrific results and increasing graduation and college going rates.

The IB program at Rainier Beach HS, like many innovative or alternative programs, is in jeopardy of closing due to lack of state support and inability of Seattle Schools to provide extra funding to keep the program alive.

As I noted in my floor speech, it is ironic that this school may not be able to keep its proven, innovative program going while we provide special funding for a charter in the same community – claiming that public schools can’t offer innovative programs that charters offer.

The charter school advocates and most (but not all) of their legislative supporters have not offered to support the funding needed to keep alive or start innovative schools for Seattle and other districts.

Thus, we have sadly seen Seattle Schools having to close “Middle College” serving the highest at-risk high school students in SE and SW Seattle, due to lack of funding from the state and the district being strapped in use of local levy funding for specialized programs. Middle College served the students at greatest risk of dropping out: pregnant teens and young mothers, students suspended or expelled from other schools or returning to school after dropping out. It is a tragedy that we aren’t providing state support for these students – but, are fighting over whether to provide higher allocations of state support for charter schools.

Without new revenue to education, funding for a limited enrollment charter high school in SE Seattle, which is serving many students from north of the Ship Canal, deprives us of funding to restore a school for the highest risk students in Seattle from the same neighborhood.

We are failing to provide for the basic rights of 1.1 million students, much less providing them with good choices, while charter schools will take funding to be able to offer curriculums that we would like to provide in numerous public schools – but can’t due to funding.

There is no reason other than funding and local choice preventing similar alternative or innovative curriculum schools in our school districts. We don’t need charters to offer those choices – just look at the local alternative choices you may enjoy in your district (such as IB at Ingraham or Rainier Beach high schools or Center School or alternative K-8 programs in Seattle). Local control means that parents and board members choose which alternative options to prioritize. Sadly, these choices are limited due to constitutionally inadequate state funding for basic education.

Here in Seattle, sending state funds to a charter which gets to dramatically limit students in each classroom will exacerbate the overcrowding and high class sizes in every other school.

This new bill suffers many of the fundamental constitutional flaws that led the Supreme Court to strike down the initiative. It continues to provide public funding to schools with no accountability to any elected body. It continues to use funds which would otherwise be available to our public schools, and even requires public schools to pay costs for charters and their students. I also object to the Senate bill, as with the initiative, forbidding teachers and staff working in a charter school from joining the union and bargaining unit of their choice, or from being able to choose to participate in the state public employee health care or pension programs.

For the sake of the 50,000 students in Seattle’s overcrowded public schools,

For the sake of the at-risk students who we are unable to provide an alternative and appropriate educational setting,

For the sake of the 1.1 million students in public schools for whom we are failing to fund lower class sizes and improved teacher pay…

I did not support special legislation and funding for 40 charter schools, when we are not providing one new penny to meet the basic needs and rights of 1.1 million children in our public schools.

I’m holding my breath waiting for the charter advocates to spend $3 million to lobby to increase taxes on their untaxed investment income and close corporate tax loopholes, so we can meet our moral and constitutional obligations so every child in our public schools has a well-trained and properly paid teacher without being crammed into an overcrowded classroom, so every child has access to innovative programs, and to invest in EVERY student’s ability to succeed.

Governor Inslee should veto this bill – it is unconstitutional, and not about “saving” the school experience for the 800 students who have been enrolled. The bill requires diverting scarce funds from our constitutionally underfunded public school system to a publicly funded private school program. Charter advocates made their choice – to insist on passing legislation using public dollars without curing the constitutional defect of no public accountability, and choosing to expand charters, rather than providing a bridge for current students while courts review their claim that this new approach is somehow constitutional.

Note: data on Summit Sierra Charter School was obtained via a Public Records Act request I submitted to the school in October, In December, the school refused to comply with the Public Records Act, but relented when I pointed out how ironic it was that they wanted public dollars but were refusing to comply with the Public Records Act, to which they were subject in exchange for public funding. The school did not provide actual records, but a spreadsheet of demographic data, schools from which students transferred and zip codes of residence.