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Round 2 in Washington State over charter schools

Originally published in The Progressive:

To Kill a Vampire: The Continued Resurrection of Charter Schools in Washington State


Washington state residents have voted charter schools down three times.

Twice, initiatives were placed on a statewide ballot—once in 1996 and then in 2000—and both were defeated. The same happened with a referendum in 2004. In 2012, charter school proponents were able to place initiative 1240, which is based on a model bill provided by theAmerican Legislative Exchange Council, on a statewide ballot.

The very wealthy—although very few—proponents of the initiative spent a whopping $10.9 million to promote the bill, making it the third most expensive initiative campaign in state history. Six “individuals” collectively spending more than $9 million included the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation. Opponents of the measure raised about $700,000. The initiative passed by a 50.69 percent majority vote,the slim victory exposing the lack of support for charter schools in the state.

After the charter school initiative became law, an organized group of residents filed a lawsuit claiming that the state’s charter schools were unconstitutional. On September 4, 2015, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that charter schools are not “common schools” per the state constitution, and therefore cannot be funded by common school funds. The judges noted that charter schools are not publicly governed, subject to local accountability, or under the authority of democratically elected school boards.

But the charter champions weren’t done.

After the court’s ruling, the Washington Charter Association revealed that it had secured $14 million in private funds to keep charter schools open. At the time, there were approximately 800 students enrolled in charter schools throughout the state. Behind the scenes, Bill Gates, via the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and the Mary Walker School District, approached a rural school district to take on the charter schools through the remainder of the school year. The Mary Walker School District, in the northeast corner of the state, has an enrollment of 508 students. In a letter dated December 9, 2015, the district Superintendent Kevin Jacka announced that his district would be taking on the charter schools scattered around the state (even though this was against the court ruling).

The Washington Charter Association approached Jacka about placing the state’s charters under the umbrella of his district’s Alternative Learning Experience (ALE) program. This state program was set up primarily for public school students who for various reasons need to study at home with a student learning plan. In a deal made at a local Starbucks, representatives from the Gates Foundation, the Washington Charter Association, and the Mary Walker School District agreed to terms where the Mary Walker School District would oversee the charter schools and receive $3 million in grants. Representatives from the Gates Foundation wrote the initial grant to be submitted by the Mary Walker School District and had Jacka approve it before it was submitted to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. One particular concern laid out in “Meeting Notes and Next Steps,” dated October 15, 2015, was the question of teachers joining a union, something they wanted to avoid.

The Mary Walker School is not set up to oversee schools who enroll students to be in class on a full-time basis, not to mention ones located in various parts of the state. Nevertheless, the Gates Foundation’s plan was to have the district provide “oversight” for the charter schools. In return it would receive a percentage of the per student state allocation before sending the rest of the money (public tax dollars) onto the charter schools.

Some would call this money laundering.

A series of emails, produced in response to a FOIA request, revealed that the Gates Foundation wrote a grant proposal for the Mary Walker School District and, after the school district’s review and approval of the proposal, a check from the Gates Foundation was sent to the district for the first of two grants. The first grant was for $250,000. The second totaled $2.1 million.

Some would call this bribery.

In addition, several state legislators came up with various scenarios to gain public money for the charter schools. They ultimately put forth a charter school proposal using lottery funds. The bill, the Charter School Act, passed through the House and Senate and went into effect on April 3, 2016.

On May 27, 2016, a set of plaintiff’s asked State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who is considering a run for governor, to investigate the constitutionality of the Charter School Act.The Attorney General responded that he was working on behalf of the state and would uphold the law. The plaintiffs, consisting of more than a dozen public interest, education and labor groups, filed a new lawsuit.

The lawsuit argues that the offending Charter School Act diverts state common school funds to charter schools and creates additional administrative costs. In addition, it re-establishes the Washington State Charter School Commission and the Superintendent is to have no authority over the charter school commission.

Also, the lawsuit points out, with the exception of “specific state statutes and rules” identified in the Charter School Act and any “state statutes and rules made applicable to the charter school in the school’s charter contract,” charter schools are not subject to and are exempt from all other state statutes and rules applicable to school districts and school district boards of directors.”

The Charter School Act also exempts charter schools from having to provide many components of the education program outlined in the basic education act. For example, charter schools are exempt from the “minimal instructional requirements” for “basic education.”

According to the lawsuit:

“The Act did not establish a new revenue source or eliminate any existing expenditures. Instead, as confirmed by the legislative history, the legislature intends merely to move existing moneys and/or existing programs between the general fund and the Washington Education Pathways Fund as needed to continue the diversion of public funds to charter schools”.

The lawsuit continues, “In filings with the Superintendent, Mary Walker School District demanded more than $3.1 million in public funds for ALEs for the 2015-16 school year, which is approximately $2.8 million more than the total ALE funds received by Mary Walker School District in the 2014-15 school year . . . . Charter schools do not meet the requirements for common schools because charter schools are neither subject to, nor under the control of, the qualified voters of the school district…Additionally, voters do not have the right to elect agents with supervisory authority over charter schools authorized by the Commission. Instead, the Commission, which is comprised of appointed members, supervises the charter schools it authorizes.”

The lawsuit states: “This diversion of public funding to charter schools through their sponsorship as ALEs also violates article IX, section 1 of the Constitution and is contrary to the Supreme Court’s decision in McCleary because it diverts funds from public schools to charter schools”.

This is exactly what voters in Washington State were concerned with over a decade ago, and still are fighting against. Washington citizens watched the march toward privatization of a public education in New Orleans, Chicago, and Detroit, and never wanted charter schools in their state.

They have seen how in California, for example, “despite the tremendous investment of public dollars and the size of its charter school population, the state has failed to implement a system that proactively monitors charters for fraud, waste, and mismanagement.” There is the problem of co-location of charter schools within public schools throughout the United States, resulting in public schools losing more and more classroom space each year along with their cafeterias, auditoriums, gyms, and libraries to charter schools that are not paying rent.

There is the also the resegregation of students created with charter schools as described recently by the NAACP, a high suspension rate of black students in charter schools and students with disabilities, the fraudulent use of funds by the charter school operators, theinstability of charter schools leaving students and communities at a loss when charter schools unexpectedly close, and the use of unqualified and inexperienced teachers in charter schools to keep their costs down.

These are just some of the reasons people in Washington State do not want charter schools in their communities, and so the fight continues in the ongoing battle of keeping public schools public.

Dora Taylor

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