The Washington Legislature ensured that the controversy over charter schools will become a focus in the state's gubernatorial campaign by specifically rejecting charters as part of any education-reform efforts in a bill that creates a handful of what will be called "collaborative schools."
The manner in which the legislation was conceived and approved, at the request of Gov. Christine Gregoire after she specifically warned that she would veto any bill authorizing charter schools, has "controversy" written all over it.
Passed in the midst of an extended session aimed at resolving the state's budget crisis, the bill is titled "collaborative schools for innovation and success pilot program." It calls for a five-year program involving six elementary schools, each of which will be operated by pairing to-be-determined school districts with colleges of education in the state.
The bill basically does two things that, for sure, won't make proponents of dramatic change in the state's education system very happy. It requires, basically, that all parts of the current schools infrastructure -- administrators, teachers unions and what's called "the professional education standards board" - must sign off on any innovative programs conceived for the handful of schools permitted to participate. And it ensures that no wholesale changes would be possible until the five years of testing for those few schools provided for in the bill have been fulfilled and evaluated.
One of those left unhappy is Rep. Eric Pettigrew, the respected African-American Democrat whose House district includes some of Seattle's at-risk neighborhoods and who had co-sponsored a bill to permit charter schools in Washington State.
"This bill isn't even close," Pettigrew told me in a telephone interview. "We have been doing things the same way for too long and accepting a certain failure rate and I don't think that's acceptable."
"Charter schools provide the flexibility to be nimble in seeking education changes," he added. "Probably the most frustrating thing about the entire experience is that discussion of what's best for the kids never seems to really conclude before it trails off into organizations that will need to be involved."
The comment frames the reason for controversy over charter schools in this state, one of the last nine in which charters are prohibited. Whether what's best for the kids is the unquestioned number one issue inevitably collides with many teachers and teacher advocates who will insist that even if kids' needs are the priority, what's good for teachers is also an issue. The stronger the teachers union in a state, the more that conflict comes into play.
The Seattle Times, in a January editorial on the bill proposed by Pettigrew and Sen. Steve Litzow, a Republican from Mercer Island, said: "Political courage is often lacking in Olympia, making Pettigrew's willingness to buck the Democratic Party's usual fidelity to the Washington Education Association all the more striking."
"Expect contentious debate," The Times editorial continued. "In particular, the teachers union sees charter schools as a threat. Yes, Washington state voters rejected charter-school proposals three times. But we know a lot more about these innovative public schools since the last failed measure in 2004."
Indicating that his "courage" isn't likely to wane in the coming months as likely Democratic gubernatorial standard-bearer Jay Inslee picks up the education ball his party has crafted for him and runs with it, Pettigrew said "if the unions or even my fellow Democrats want to come after me, fine."
Atty. Gen. Rob McKenna, the presumptive Republican gubernatorial nominee who has promised to make education reform and funding a focal point of his campaign, says of the collaborative-schools idea "There is no evidence that they will actually work. Moreover, it will take years before we know if they do."
"I support trying new approaches to improve education for our children right now," he added. "And a smarter approach would be to adopt models that have a proven track record of success, like high-performing public charter schools that are working in 41 other states."
McKenna says both collaborative schools and charter schools should be "tools in the toolkit" for those seeking a new education model.
Inslee, in a wide-ranging blueprint for education reform to create "An innovative, accountable education system: building a better future for every child and a stronger economy for Washington," called for change in most aspects of the economy that might impact education funding.
Thus his plan for educational reform and adequate funding calls for "reinvigorating the economy..." "Reverse the trend of healthcare inflation eating into education spending..." "Sunset corporate tax loopholes that have outlived their purpose..." and "Expand a system of quality improvement to all government agencies..."
Inslee says his "vision for an education system by 2020" includes that "achievement and opportunity gaps among students are eliminated."
An ongoing challenge for Inslee and Democrats in rejecting the idea of even having charter schools on the education-reform table is that some prominent, long-time Democrat supporters appear reluctant to get aboard.
Perhaps most challenging for them is Nick Hanauer, the venture capitalist and avowed "lifelong Democrat and committed progressive," who views Republican positions on social issues and taxation as "misguided," but says "McKenna is on the right track and we are not" on school reform.
"We may be headed in the right direction, but we aren't in the right lane," Hanauer told the head of the state teachers' union in a February e-mail exchange. "It is not classroom teachers who are afraid of change and innovation, it is their union."
While charter schools are anathema to teachers' unions, they have gathered supporters from among some of those who toil in the classrooms, including Erin Gustafson, who grew up on Mercer Island but began her teaching career in one of California's poverty pockets.
"My path to supporting charters began 16 years ago when I taught fifth grade at a high-poverty school in Vallejo," Gustason told me. "I became disillusioned with the poor teaching, union rules that protected that, and the restrictions of operating in a large system."
Gustafson, now married and the mother of children 9 and 7 and a substitute teacher, became involved in a new teacher-created education-reform non-profit called Teachers United, born a year ago with the goal of "giving teachers a voice in policy debates."
She is now policy director for the group, which advocated last session for charter schools as one of the choices that need to be available in Washington State. She was among teachers from the organization who testified before the legislature's education committees on behalf of charter schools.
"After doing a lot of research and visiting several public charter schools in California, I have come to believe that successful public charters are an effective way of closing the achievement gap," she said. "We took teachers who were interested to visit high-performance charters across the country and, for those teachers, seeing was believing so they decided to advocate for charters."