State Supreme Court Decision Threatens Proposed Charter School


Ellen Ivens-Duran

A recent decision by the Washington Supreme Court may cause trouble for the Willow School, a Walla Walla charter school that was approved by the Washington State Charter Commission on August 13th and slated to open in 2016. The Court effectively banned public funding of charter schools, with their September 5th ruling that a 2012 law approved by voters that intended to fund up to 40 charter schools over a 5-year period was unconstitutional. This ruling came in response to a suit brought by several nonprofits and private citizens, and it affects the 1,200 children currently enrolled in Washington charter schools as well as proposed charter schools, such as the Willow School. Unless a change is made soon, the opening date will have to be pushed back, likely for a year or two, perhaps permanently.

The Court found that charter schools do not fit into the 1909 definition of “common schools,” mainly because neither the schools nor their funding decisions are governed by local elected school board officials.  Dan Calzaretta, the Executive Director of the Willow School team, was shaken by the ruling. He has faith in the charter school as public school model and worries that the decision may harm other supplemental programs administered by unelected officials, which include Running Start, Skills Centers, and some tribal schools, not just charter schools.

“Everybody knows … no one system can meet the needs of every kid,” said Calzaretta during a phone interview. 

Michael Augustine ’16

Michael Augustine is a senior at Whitman and one of the Willow School’s summer interns, who is continuing his involvement with the school through a Community Fellowship funded by the Student Engagement Center. He looks on the decision with a similar disfavor.

“A big question mark is surrounding Washington public education right now,” said Augustine.

Despite the confusion, the Willow School remains hopeful, mostly due to the outpouring of support in Walla Walla and across the state. Augustine and Calzaretta were both cheered by the community response to the ruling. At the Willow School’s September 10th rally protesting the Court’s decision, Calzaretta attested that more than 70 people attended. On the statewide level, Washington’s attorney general is one of several prominent voices pushing back against the decision.

“The outcry has been amazing from both sides of the political spectrum,” said Calzaretta. 

And so, the Willow School is moving ahead with its plans to open an innovative school that they hope will be responsive to community needs. In the year since the school was proposed, Willow’s team has hosted a number of bilingual community meetings in conjunction with local organizer Commitment to Community. Those meetings, according to Augustine, really enhanced the community’s relationship with the Willow School.

“When I look at [Willow’s] connection to the community, I’m floored … the community sees them as a resource,” said Augustine.

The Willow School would offer a solution to what Calzaretta sees as a system replete with great educators but lacking alternative programs during the formative middle school years.

“At the middle level there isn’t a whole lot for kids as far as different approaches,” said Calzaretta, “there aren’t any, I should say.”

According to Calzaretta and Augustine, Willow aims to employ project-based learning, cultural competency through bilingual education, and a truly collaborative educational program, with group study time and administrative focus on fostering a supportive campus culture.

Willow’s message, however, has not made it to all corners of Walla Walla. Lydia McDermott, an Assistant Professor of Composition and the Director of the Center for Writing and Speaking at Whitman, who has children in Walla Walla’s public school system is uncertain about the school, but not necessarily opposed to it.

“I like the idea of the Willow School as far as I understand what it is,” said McDermott.

That being said, she has reservations.

“The educational mission, I agree with; whether or not it should be happening as a charter school, I have mixed feelings about,” she said. “I would be just as happy if one of the middle schools that currently exists were to extend the project based learning…to all students.”

McDermott did identify the lack of a bilingual education program at the middle school level as a major gap in Walla Walla’s schools. This ambivalence among members of the community who have not been exposed to Willow’s educational paradigm, or who are hesitant to speak out in support of charter schools, may hurt Willow’s efforts to come back from the Supreme Court ruling.

Although the future remains uncertain, with the Court having extended its deadline for Motions for Reconsideration to October 23rd, the Willow School remains optimistic.

“I’m very optimistic that a fix will be found and hopefully it will be found soon so that we can again fulfill the promise to the families and children not only of Walla Walla, but also Washington State … an excellent public … education for all kids,” said Calzaretta.