Union’s back-door effort to kill popular charter school bill shows those in power care little about reducing inequality and systematic racism in public education

By LIV FINNE  | 
Apr 5, 2021
BLOG

Lawmakers are rightly showing great concern about improving the quality, graduation rates, equal treatment and fairness in public schools.  Some even say the traditional public school system is systemically racist and are demanding solutions.  

It is certainly true that public schools produce starkly unequal outcomes, with the achievement gap between ethnic groups in math, science and reading wider than ever.  Washington has at least 117 state-identified failing public schools, which are placed mostly in urban areas.  Each year officials send about 44,000 children, disproportionately from black, Hispanic, Asian and immigrant families, to these low-performing schools.

That is why it is encouraging that charter public schools, created by voters in 2012, are providing a nurturing, high-quality education to thousands of children across the state, particularly in urban communities of color.  A bi-partisan coalition of lawmakers renewed the law in 2016. 

Charter schools are popular with parents and most have waiting lists.  Today, 12 charter schools educate some 4,000 mostly low-income black and Hispanic children. Six more charter schools are scheduled to open in the fall, providing one program option in a public system of nearly 2,000 schools.  Charters have a high level of parent satisfaction and an amazing graduation rate of 99%.

So it was deeply upsetting to many parents when news broke that Democrat leaders had killed a bill during this year’s legislative session to re-authorize the state’s voter-approved charter school law.  HB 1195 would have extended the law for a further five years, to 2026, while still limiting the total number to 40 schools.

The bill was bravely sponsored by seven Democrats, who defied their leadership and the powerful WEA union to support charter school families.  Since Republicans already support the charter school option for families that want it, the bill likely would have passed if it made it to the floor. It didn’t.

Representative Sharon Tomiko-Santos (D-Seattle), the Chair of the House Education Committee, blocked the bill, and it missed the February 15th deadline for bills to pass in committee. 

Since a majority of House members likely support the bill, a behind-the-scenes power play was clearly involved.  The WEA union hates charter schools because they give low-income parents the option to leave the traditional monopoly and find a better alternative, just as wealthy families do when they choose a private school.  Not only does this mean a loss of power and funding, it is highly embarrassing when families of color vote with their feet and leave the union-dominated system.

The union’s back-door maneuver to kill HB 1195 is deeply unjust and unfair, and shows that those in power will do little to combat systematic racism in public education.  Teacher salaries are now so high that many public school employees send their own children to private schools, so they have little incentive to fight for learning options for the children of lower-paid families.

Charter school families already receive less funding than families in traditional public schools. This discriminatory fiscal policy cuts about $3,000 for every child attending a current charter school, and now the legislature is cancelling their future authorization.  Existing charters will continue, but the number of schools will be capped at less than half of the number approved by voters. 

The aggression against charter families won’t end there.  The union is counting on a hostile political environment to press the remaining schools too, until attrition has reduced their number even further.  Of course that’s the goal, to shut off learning options for low-income families and communities of color until only one option is left. The union wants to send all children to the local public school within the union-dominated system. This is now likely to happen, all because one committee in one legislative house wouldn’t pass a bi-partisan re-authorization bill.

Yet all is not yet lost. The legislature is still in session. Legislative leaders can still revive HB 1195, and extend the time frame for authorizing new charter schools. They can still give charter schools equal funding and access to public school facilities. Legislators can still deliver equity and equal treatment for low-income and minority families who want to send their children to a proven and high performing public charter school.