It’s my privilege to stand up for charter schools and students

Politicians tend to overuse some phrases. “It’s such an honor” to be part of this, “it’s a privilege” to do that. So considering I’m a recovering politician, you might wonder if I’ve lapsed into saying things that sound rote.

But I mean it sincerely when I say it’s a great honor and privilege to represent our state’s charter public schools and their students in court. I stood before the state Supreme Court on Thursday to make the case that our (voter- and legislature-approved) charter schools are legal and legitimate. It meant a lot to me to have that opportunity.

I handled, along with a great team, the legal aspects of the case. But it was the students themselves who made the most important case. About 1,500 charter students, teachers, and family members crowded the capitol steps Thursday and reminded the Olympia powers-that-be that this case isn’t some pie-in-the-sky hypothetical. Public charter schools matter, a lot, to these kids and are making a powerful difference in their education and lives.

Students are their own best advocates
Charter students shared how their schools are challenging and improving them in ways no previous school ever had. One 8th grader said her charter school “is showing me how to be a scholar and a leader…We deserve to have public school options that will help us succeed.”

A young man who is a junior at Summit Sierra charter public school in Seattle said:

“As a black student in the public education system, historically and systemically, the odds are not in my favor. I see myself and other students of color thriving at charter public schools. Our success should be the norm, not the exception, and for me and so many kids like me, charter public schools provide exactly that – an opportunity to succeed.”

But the argument in the courtroom wasn’t about what’s best for kids – it was about power, control, and money in the education system.

In the courtroom
Charter schools’ main adversary, we all know, is the state teachers union. The WEA cannot abide having even 10 (12 as of this fall) charter schools in this state, even though charters are such a tiny fraction of the overall system. The union is dead-set on stopping charter schools before they grow and succeed (FYI the cap, as set in I-1240, is 40 charter schools, out of about 2200 public schools statewide).

To that end, the union’s counsel referred to charters repeatedly and incorrectly as “private schools.” He sought to undermine the accountable oversight charters receive from the charter school commission (a mechanism, it should be noted, that voters approved). “Part of the heart” of his objection to charter schools is about collective bargaining, even though staff at charters can unionize and bargain collectively.

Our response was straight-forward: The state constitution allows charter public schools, and many other forms of public schools, and there is significant public oversight of them. The concept received the approval of both voters and the legislature because they wanted to provide different options to students at risk.

Like the previous charters case that reached the Supreme Court, the union and its allies have a difficult time arguing why the court should strike down charters but not some other programs. They argue that it’s a fatal flaw that some charters are not overseen by a local school board (some are, by the way).

But that’s true of many other programs, including Running Start and state-tribal compact schools. The plaintiffs complain about public charter schools, which aren’t paid for from the general fund, but are fine with these other programs, which are.

What’s the difference? The real distinction isn’t legal but political – the union isn’t threatened by these other programs. But charters? For whatever reason, charters are seen as competition, as a threat.

The students packed into the court chambers and on the capitol steps don’t care about the politics, and they don’t care about fights over which adults in the system control what. They just want their schools to survive because, for many of them, their public charter school is the first time an educational institution has met their needs.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.