This was written by Melissa Westbrook, a public education activist and co-writer of the Seattle Schools Community Forum blog, based in Seattle.
By Melissa Westbrook
Quietly marching to its own drummer, Washington State has mostly turned its back on the education reform movement that is sweeping much of the rest of the country.
Washington is one of nine states that does not have a charter school law. Our state has defeated charter laws three times at the ballot box — two were citizen initiatives and one was a referendum to repeal a charter law passed by our legislature. In between those votes, five more bills were introduced and rejected in our Legislature.
In this year’s legislative session, a new charter bill was introduced. This bill included the ability to create charter schools, takeover of failing schools by the state and a parent/teacher trigger. Among those testifying against the bill was the head of the Washington State School Directors’ Association, Mary Fertakis, who said, “Let the people decide if this is the right time and the right tool to best serve our students.”
The bill never made to the floor for a vote and died at the end of the session. When the Legislature had to go into special session to finish the budget and a couple of legislators were pushing the charter bill, Gov. Christine Gregoire, a Democrat, said, “Get over charter schools,” and promised a veto if the bill passed.
Jay Inslee, the Democrat now running to succeed Gregoire as governor, has rejected the idea of charter schools for his education platform.
Another favorite of education reformers, Teach for America, came in just last fall to Seattle’s public schools (as they did to another smaller district, south of Seattle).
Seattle’s school board had negotiated a narrow contract with TFA that does not require Seattle Schools to hire any TFA members — a different arrangement from many other such contracts — and, if the district cannot find an outside donor for the TFA fee (Seattle's is $4,000 per teacher per year), then Seattle Schools does not have to pay TFA its fee.
Seattle has site-based hiring teams and with a plethora of fully-qualified and unemployed teachers to choose from, Seattle schools only hired six TFA teachers.
The University of Washington's College of Education (whose dean is a former TFA corps member) created an entire alternative certification program only for TFA members but they have just 11 TFA students between the two districts. They needed at least 40 students to justify its costs and so it is running at a loss.
Why no charter schools and almost no Teach for America in Washington State? It seems to be that when Washingtonians are presented with data about outcomes for both charter schools and TFA, they just say ‘no.’
What do we have instead? Our Legislature has passed several bills over the last several years in support of innovation within our existing education structure. There have been 22 such schools recognized for providing programs for students that are “bold, creative, and innovative.”
Another law, Lighthouse Schools, designates schools with STEM programming that provide technical aid to other schools/communities that want to create a STEM focus. Our Legislature also just passed a bill that sets up a partnership with some of our state’s lowest performing schools and our public four-year universities to create “lab schools” to accelerate student achievement and increase teaching skills.
What makes this all especially interesting is that Seattle is home to two players in the ed reform movement.
One is the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington (it is not part of the College of Education. ) The CRPE does policy research mainly around charter schools, urban district reform and teacher assessments, all hallmarks of ed reform. And again, this in a state that does not have charter schools or, another ed reform favorite, any mayoral control of school districts.
The second much more powerful player is the education arm of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In Washington state it invests in STEM creation in schools, early education and support for low-income students. But there would seem to be a disconnect in what the Gates foundation does for Washington education and Bill Gates’ very public support of ed reform issues like charter schools and TFA. Neither Gates nor the foundation have been involved in public discussions in Washington about charter schools.
We don’t need under-trained teachers in our schools. We don’t need the costs of the infrastructure for charter schools for the low number of positive outcomes from them. We especially don’t need the for-profit charter management organizations to come into our state and help to make education into a profit center instead of the public service it is to the young citizens of Washington state.
My belief is that Washington’s hesitation in the ed reform game is Washington’s educational gain.
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