Washington Charter Schools Persist

Ellen Ivens-Duran

Public schools in Washington are underfunded, but at least one school in Walla Walla will see more money come next fall. On April 3 a bill that proposed funding Washington charter schools with state lottery revenue, including the Willow School in Walla Walla, became law.

Washington State’s charter school funding has been a hotly contested issue in recent years. Advocates argue charter schools offer unique opportunities and higher quality education; opponents point out that because public schools are underfunded, education dollars should not go to charter schools, which serve a small percentage of the total student population.

Last September, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled publicly-funded charter schools unconstitutional; in March, the state Senate passed a bill that would allow the state to fund charter schools through lottery revenue as opposed to the general fund. This avoided diverting existing funds away from public education to help charter schools, but lawmakers continue to avoid their constitutionally-required duty to adequately fund public education.

April 1, two days before the end of the governor’s window to act on the bill, Gov. Jay Inslee announced that he would neither sign nor veto the law. This marked the first time since 1985 that a governor has decided not to endorse or oppose legislation passed by the state Senate. Due to pressure from teachers union members and anti-charter school activists to veto, and from a well-funded pro-charter school campaign to support the measure, Inslee decided to to take no action.

Senior and Students for Education Reform (SFER) co-president Michael Augustine began working with Willow School founders last summer, and has continued his work as a Community Fellowship through the Student Engagement Center. Administrators worked to secure a charter, and are now in the process of finding a building for the school.

“Through my internship this summer, I got to see the Washington state commission and how that operates … and that certainly solidified my support for charter schools because Washington apparently has one of the strictest approval policies and so to see the process that the Willow School went through to get approved, I was very convinced that whoever was approving them had a pretty good idea that it was going to be a very high function[ing] school,” Augustine said.

Senior Catherine Bayer, Augustine’s SFER co-president, is watching the drama unfold from her perspective as a future charter school teacher. This fall, Bayer will begin work with Boston charter school consortium Match.

“I think sometimes charter schools provide an environment that public schools cannot,” Bayer said. “For instance, I’ve seen in the charter schools that I’m going to be working in, that it’s very much a loving, community environment, which is sometimes hard to establish in a  public schools just because they’re a lot larger, there’s less funding … and they can’t do things that a lot of charter schools put into place, like special field trips, and lots of family involvement and things that the public school structure restricts.”

Not all Whitties support charter schools. Junior Kevin Miller, who has worked in Walla Walla’s public schools since arriving on campus, believes that charter schools take necessary funding from public schools. The 2012 State Supreme Court ruling “McCleary v. State” found that Washington had failed to adequately fund public schools and would have to increase funds by 2018.

“There is a limited educational budget,” Miller said. “Money is not infinite … The state is still in contempt of court. That’s symbolic, right, we’re never going to pay that fine, but they’re still in contempt of court and yet they somehow found money to fund charter schools … they could have put that money into the general public school education budget and be close to meeting the McCleary decision.”

For many, the conflict comes down to whether well-funded public schools and charter schools can co-exist. For Miller, at least, the answer is no.

“A better solution would be to properly fund public schools at large rather than having a whole bunch of different solutions and treating education like a business,” Miller said, “Because schools shouldn’t be looking at the bottom line all the time, they should be focusing on students’ needs.”