The following is a response to Liv Finne, a Director at the Washington Policy Center which is a member of ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, who published a piece after the Washington State Supreme Court brought down their decision that charter schools are not “Common Schools” per our state constitution and therefore cannot receive public funding.

Ms. Finne wrote an editorial that became a personal attack on Wayne Au, one of the plaintiffs in the State Supreme Court case.

To follow is Dr. Au’s response.

Dear Liv: Yes, A Loss for ALEC and the Privatizers Makes Me Happy

By Wayne Au

Wayne Au likes to close schools.  The U.W.-Bothell associate professor writes …that September 4, 2015, the day six state supreme court justices voted to defund charter schools in communities across the state, “was a good day for me.” 

Saying it “felt like a personal victory,” Au proudly announces himself as “a very vocal opponent” of voter-approved Initiative 1240 and of allowing children to attend a public charter school.  His unrestrained glee almost jumps off the page. – Liv Finne, “Charter opponent expresses joy at school closures.”

On September 4, 2015, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that charter schools here in Washington were unconstitutional because they received public monies but were not subject to publicly elected governance. I had been deeply involved in the struggles against charter schools in Washington State, and expressed my happiness about the ruling in a piece published in the Washington Post. My essay was subsequently republished under a different title at CommonDreams, and then republished under yet another title in the newsletter of the Washington State Labor Council newsletter, The Stand. Then, on September 17, 2015, Liv Finne and the Washington Policy Center attacked me personally, citing The Stand, for my response to the charter school ruling.

What Liv Finne and the Washington Policy Center wrote about me was rambling, off topic, filled with assertions lacking evidence, and so poorly argued that I actually don’t think it warrants a point-by-point rebuttal. However, I do believe it does warrant some kind of response. Readers, please take a moment to read my original commentary on the charter school constitutionality ruling, and then check out the attack on me for a more full understanding of this conversation. What follows is a rolling update of responses after the attack:

Personal Response 1:

LOL. This is so over the top that it reads like an article from The Onion. Except articles in The Onion are better written.

Personal Response 2:

(Crocodile tears.) This was clearly written by someone feeling defeated and hurt. Sorry our state constitution got in your way, Liv. If only we could just get rid of that darned thing and let the corporations run free! Life would be so much more fair and equal.

Personal Response 3:

As much as I appreciate the important organizing work of The Stand, why is Liv Finne and the Washington Policy Center worried about something that appeared in a statewide labor newsletter? The least you could do is respond to the piece when it appeared nationally, first in the Washington Post and then CommonDreams. You shouldn’t be hating on me for something so local. Liv Finne and the Washington Policy Center, you should be hating on me for putting you on blast ACROSS THE COUNTRY!

Friends’ Congratulatory Responses:

“It is a badge of honor.”

“A sure sign of having made a difference, congratulations!”

“You must be doing something right.”

“Congratulations! At least they spelled your name right.”

Friends’ Congratulatory Responses Explained:

I’ve got an incredible network of friends both in real life, and on Facebook – super smart and engaged people doing incredible activist work locally and around the country. So as soon as I posted about being personally attacked by Liv Finne and the Washington Policy Center, my friends were very quick to point something out: The Washington Policy Center is a prominent member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) – you know, that wonderful group that works to get anti-union, anti-tax, anti-environmental protection, anti-voter’s rights, and pretty much any anti-public laws passed in our states. Deregulation. Privatization. ALEC.

Remember the “stand your ground” gun laws used to justify the killing of Trayvon Martin and other Black folks around the country? That’s ALEC. Voter I.D. registration laws found to systematically keep poor people and Black people from voting? That’s ALEC too. Guess what? The President of the Washington Policy Center, Daniel Mead Smith? He’s officially the ALEC chair of Washington State. And a bunch of the Washington Policy Center staffers have worked directly on ALEC legislation on a variety of issues (courtesy of PR Watch).

Personal Response 4:

If you look at Finne’s attack, she doesn’t actually refute any of my arguments with any kind of evidence. A lot of what I wrote revolved around the fact that the governance structure language found in the charter school law here in Washington State came directly from the ALEC model charter school legislation. ALEC is very clear that they want to privatize public schools in whatever way they can, including having public monies to go to private schools via voucher programs. This is why the language of charter school laws is written so that the public money “follows the child” into the non-publicly governed school. That’s voucher talk right there. That’s ALEC. That’s Liv Finne and the Washington Policy Center.

Friends’ Sarcastic Responses:

“Wayne Au hates minorities and homeless youth.”

“That guy must REALLY hate kids!”

“Can we see your happy dance?”

“Don’t be a dream killer.”

“You hate kids? Especially low income Black and Brown kids? I mean, didn’t we already know that?”

“Wayne Au, Professional School Closer, should be on your new business cards.”

“I feel like this article is missing some obscure comparison between you and Hitler.”  “Wayne Au likes to close schools….and burn them to the ground….and sell the children into slavery!”

Friends’ Sarcastic Responses Explained:

Liv Finne and the Washington Policy Center’s attack on me for supposedly liking to close schools because I don’t care for Black, Brown, homeless, and poor kids proves how little Finne knows about me and my teaching, scholarship, and history. I’ve worked in education since I was 19 years old when I first started tutoring, counseling, and mentoring low income, first generation-to-attend-college students in Upward Bound. The students all came from working class communities in Tacoma and several smaller towns in the South Puget Sound area. Many were Native American students hailing from their reservations and students of color from inner city Tacoma.

From there I became a public school teacher and helped co-found an alternative public high school in Seattle called Middle College High School at South Seattle College. There we served high school dropouts who wanted to turn their lives around and get their diplomas. My students there: poor, white, Black, Brown, Asian American, Pacific Islander, Native American, immigrant, refugee. We had students who were homeless, formerly incarcerated, evicted, without medical care, without regular access to food, with drug issues, with former gang affiliations, with PTSD. You name it, we dealt with it. And we worked to educate those kids and keep them alive. (Note: I continued my Upward Bound work at South Seattle College then too).

Later, after a couple years teaching ethnic studies at Berkeley High School in Berkeley, CA, I went on to get my Ph.D. studying with some of the most respected critical and multicultural education scholars in the country. Since then I’ve built a career doing anti-racist, multicultural, and social justice work in education – critiquing discriminatory tests, pushing teachers, schools, and unions to deal with race equity and poverty more forcefully, and highlighting the very concrete ways that free market approaches to fixing education have failed miserably, especially for low income and kids of color (more on this later). Over 100 publications and scores of presentations later, I’m considered a national figure in promoting and advocating for educational equity and justice.

So when Liv Finne and the Washington Policy Center say I don’t care about homeless kids, kids of color, and their communities, all I can do is laugh—especially because I’ve actually done the work, and I’m pretty sure that Finne and her colleagues haven’t actually worked as closely with those kids and their families as I have. Hence, my friends’ sarcastic remarks, and the fact that I didn’t lose any sleep thinking about the off-base attack at all.

Personal Response 5:

Did Liv Finne really just use First Place Scholars charter as a simultaneous example of a good charter school for homeless kids and one that is being held accountable to the public? As I think should be clear based on my extensive experience working with marginalized students, I’m totally down with programs that serve homeless kids. I know the myriad of issues these kids face and the kinds of obstacles they have confront in order to survive life, let alone do well in school. Those kids need and deserve a high quality education that meets the wide range of needs they have, and at a minimum they deserve basic protections insuring that their legal educational rights are being honored. But, as Finne and the Washington Policy Center well know (because, you know, ALEC), the charter model is built around deregulation of education and a lack of public accountability mechanisms for school governance.

I’m sure the folks running First Place Scholars are well intentioned, and I’m equally sure they didn’t really know what they were committing to in making their school a charter, but, following Finne’s lead, we should look at what happened at First Place Scholars—which serves some of our most vulnerable populations of students—over the last year.

As was reported back in late Fall of 2014, then again in March 2015 in a letter from the Washington State Charter School Commission, and as recently as September 21, 2015 in the Accountability Audit Report by the Washington State Auditor’s Office, over the course of its first year First Place Scholars charter school:

  • Started with 5 of 8 teachers not certificated (by October 2014 it was 2 of 8)
  • Did not perform criminal background checks, as required by state law, on a number of staff
  • Did not have a certificated special education teacher and did not provide special education services for its students from September 2014 to March 2015, despite a full 20% of its children being placed in special education
  • Was not meeting the educational needs of its English Language Learners
  • Was not properly implementing or tracking assessment of student progress
  • Faced constant financial shortfalls so severe that the school was under regular threat to close its facilities
  • Was not meeting the school educational design outlined in their original charter contract
  • Did not maintain documentation of staff certification
  • Had out of date safety plans
  • Did not adequately monitor and report student enrollment
  • Lacked internal fiscal controls and documentation for monitoring finances, putting the school in danger of fiscal collapse
  • Improperly used public funds to support the operations First Place, Inc., the non-profit established to manage the school
  • Did not comply with lawful requirement to hold meetings open to the public.
  • Was overpaid by $200,000.00 (of state education funds that should have went to public schools, mind you) because of improper reporting and not providing promised and required special education services

In her attack piece, Finne uses First Place Scholars both as a good charter school that I am supposedly happy to shut down, as well as proof that there is public accountability for charter schools. But Finne needs to answer a couple questions first: Don’t homeless kids deserve better? Is this really what comprises a high quality education for homeless kids?

As far as First Place Scholars being proof that there is public accountability, let’s take that on face value. The issues at First Place were only first noticed when a representative of the Washington State Charter School Commission happened to be there for a meeting. It was happenstance, not systematic. No one was actively minding the shop. This is what happens at the crossroads of deregulation and a lack of public accountability: The mistakes and problems are figured out after the fact, after the students in special education don’t receive any special education services for 6 months of the year, after months of English Language Learners not getting the services they require and deserve, after $200,000.00 goes unaccounted for, after we find out that proper criminal background checks had not been completed, after a school spends most of the year on the brink of financial collapse and regularly cuts services for kids. The deregulated charter school version of after-the-fact-accountability is always done in retrospect, and it means figuring out the problems after the damage has already been done and after the kids have already been hurt. In this regard, Liv Finne, your versions of educational equality and accountability are completely suspect and, in terms of serving real children, straight up irresponsible.

Personal Response 6:

Liv Finne Doesn’t Understand Market Models.

The fact that Finne’s version of quality and accountability are so backwards looking leads me to an important point. Based on her arguments, it occurred to me that Finne doesn’t actually understand how markets models of education reform function (models that, by the way, based on the prevailing evidence haven’t done anything to actually improve public education).

You see, the entire charter school model is based purely on a market model. Charter schools are framed as small businesses competing with each other and regular public schools. In this model, supposedly “good” charters (however that is defined) will get their market share of students and remain open, while “bad” charters will lose their market share of students and close. This is the logic of charter schools 101, and it is the repeated mantra of charter advocates within the corporate education reform movement. “Good charters stay open. Bad charters close. Good charters stay open. Bad Charters close. Good charters…”

Two points jump out immediately. First, this market model is the basis of Finne’s retrospective, after-the-fact version of accountability. Charters, as small businesses, are supposed to close after they’ve “failed.” Guess what? That means they close after the kids in those “failing” charters have had their education messed up by their now closed schools. Second is that, in promoting charter schools as they do, Finne and the Washington Policy Center are promoting a model that fundamentally requires school closures. So while Finne falsely accused me as being someone who likes to close schools, Finne herself is someone whose entire vision of schools is built upon the promise of school closures.

Personal Response 7:

Liv Finne REALLY Doesn’t Understand Market Models.

Look, I am absolutely sympathetic to the parents and kids who enrolled in our nine charter schools here in Washington State. I would bet that the charter operators were, at best, inconsistent in communicating to the students and parents about the risks involved given the then-pending Washington State Supreme Court ruling. Shoot, it is even possible that some of the charter management organizations themselves may not have fully grasped the risks involved.

BUT, this is the game you play when you model charter schools around small, independently operating businesses. Charter schools are supposed to be about “choice” and “competition” in the educational marketplace, and within this model, if you “choose” to invest in a risky product in a risky market, then you and the charter operators are assuming that risk. Those charter school operators opened their small businesses in an environment where there was very real risk that the constitutional ruling could go against them and withdraw their state funding entirely. If your small business (charter) gets shut down because someone did not fully understand state regulations or fully comprehend the potential risk of opening in a hostile marketplace, so be it. That is how the free market is supposed to function.

Part of the risk of charters, as small businesses not governed by the public, is that they can and do close often, sometimes without notice. Charter closures have happened all over the place, many times for financial problems. As PR Watch has reported, between 2001 and 2013 almost 2,500 charter schools closed (impacting almost 290,000 students), and in the 2011-2012 school year specifically, charter schools were two and a half times more likely to experience closures than regular public schools. The charter school model is a model based on school closures.

Personal Response 8:

Relative to the idea that charter schools serve working class communities and communities of color, I encourage everyone to do their research. In terms of academic achievement, charters simply perform the same as public schools, and they do so with fewer students in special education and English Language learners. On top of that, you have to ask yourself how working class and communities of color have fared within free market systems in this country generally. Just look at what deregulation has done for folks. Inequality has increased exponentially. These systems have never served working class folks and folks of color. A few individuals may sneak by to economic “success,” while the vast majority suffer under the weight of tremendous structural inequality. 

Final Response:

So don’t believe the hype. Charters on the whole aren’t about improving public education, and they certainly aren’t about educational equality or justice for working class and communities of color. They have a history of being discriminatory, the research shows very clearly that they don’t do any better than actual public schools, and they are predicated on a business model that requires failure and inequality (which systemically and historically has been concentrated with communities of color).

All of which makes the tagline for the Washington Policy Center, “Improving lives through market solutions,” completely laughable. Not only does Liv Finne not seem to understand the free market model for which she and the Center advocate, she turns a blind eye to the damage the model causes when it is imported into public education as a “solution” purported to improve lives for students.

In the end, these responses are not about preventing children from attending charter schools, as Finne suggests. They are about the fact that our state Supreme Court agreed that publicly funded charter schools are not really “public” schools because they lack public accountability. As such, they should not have been opened in the first place. So while I worry about the impact of school closings on children and families (as I worry about all of our children), this ruling is a major defeat for the Washington Policy Center, ALEC, and all of those seeking to privatize public education. And hell yes, that defeat makes me happy.