Searching for a charter school conspiracy

Like you, I am often frustrated with how Olympia is run. While there’s plenty to improve upon there, however, one need only look at the way D.C. dys-functions and suddenly Olympia looks pretty good by comparison. Compared to Congress, there’s a lot of bipartisan cooperation in the Legislature. The egos are a little more in check. Politics doesn’t seem like a search-and-destroy mission.

And for the most part, the discourse in Olympia seems a little more genuine than federal politics. More often, political leaders say what they mean, mean what they say, and do it with respect.

That’s not to say that Olympia is free of head-scratching arguments. Someone forwarded one such argument to me regarding charter schools, made last month by the head of the Washington Association of School Administrators (WASA).

The author of this post states up front that his group opposed the state charter schools initiative that passed in 2012 and was one of the plaintiffs in the court challenge to the initiative, in which the Supreme Court ruled against charter schools. He runs through WASA’s concerns about charter schools, but then he makes an argument about negative reaction to the Supreme Court’s timing that is hard to brush off:

There has been little, if any, criticism focused on the eight new schools that went blithely forward, knowing full well that the Court had not yet decided their future. I doubt that any other business would risk a start-up venture in the face of such uncertainty, and yet, these eight new schools were moving full speed ahead. Where was the public outrage regarding their actions in light of what occurred? And were they just caught up in the excitement of a new venture, or was this a calculated plan to make sure there were student faces at the center of this debate?[emphasis added]

  1. I’m not sure why the author would expect “public outrage” over charter schools opening their doors, since it was that same public, as Shift WA points out, that passed the charter school law in the first place. Charter school leaders weren’t moving “blithely forward,” they were completing the process of setting up these schools that began soon after the 2012 election was certified. When a program run entirely by government is struck down by the courts, does the author also blame that government for moving “blithely forward” on it?
  2. “…was this a calculated plan to make sure there were student faces at the center of this debate?” Here the argument is really heading into conspiracy theory territory. Is the author really suggesting that just by opening their doors to students, charter schools were trying to manipulate the debate and create “victims”? Maybe he should tell that to the dedicated teachers who believe in their mission to help disadvantaged communities with a different approach to education. They must be pawns, too, in this imagined Machiavellian scheme.
  3. Then the author does cite an actual conspiracy theory. He wrote, “According to the Public Disclosure Commission, Initiative 1240 was supported by over $11.4 million from a few wealthy individuals, while the opposition raised only $714,351. Maybe that investment, and the more recent public relations campaign, is purely motivated by philanthropy. Or as Deep Throat suggested in All the President’s Men, perhaps we should follow the money.” Then he goes on to say Wall Street loves charter schools because of a tax break. But does he link that to the preceding paragraph about who donated to the initiative campaign? No. Some of the top donors include Bill Gates, Paul Allen (through Vulcan), Connie Ballmer, Nick Hanauer, and Jeff Bezos’s parents. Did they donate because they hoped to make money from charter schools? Please.

Groups like WASA and the state teachers union oppose charter schools. I get that, and I don’t expect them to do the charter school movement any favors. But the opposition should see that charter school advocates genuinely believe that charters are an option we need to help kids who really need a choice. As legislators debate this year over whether to make a “fix” to the charter school law, it would be better not to turn the debate into one of dark conspiracies around every corner.
-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.