20-Year Effort to Fix State Schools Drives This Year’s Charter Schools Initiative

I-1240 the Latest Chapter in a Reform Effort That Never Really Ended

OLYMPIA, Oct. 10.— In the time it has taken to fix Washington state’s schools, empires have risen and fallen, Britney Spears has come and gone and the glaciers have melted. And now, finally, the longest-running reform effort in state history seems to be entering a new chapter – probably not the final one – as Washington stands poised to pass a charter schools initiative that might do part of a job started more than 20 years ago.

It might sound a little strange to put it that way. But there’s a direct relationship between the much-touted education reform effort launched by the state’s business community in the early ‘90s and this year’s Initiative 1240. For years business has been butting heads with the state’s education lobby, and somehow education reform just keeps sputtering along. It took years for business leaders to launch the standardized-testing program that was education reform’s signature element, and it took even longer for the state’s education lobby to pull the last of its teeth and alter it beyond recognition. Yet it still looked like the effort still had a pulse this year when a business-backed teacher-evaluation bill passed the Legislature over strong union opposition.

And now come charter schools, backed by a coalition that includes many of the same players that pushed ed reform 20 years ago. Steve Mullin, president of the Washington Roundtable, the group that represents the state’s largest employers, calls business support for charter schools “a natural outgrowth of our frustration.”

We’ll see next month whether the voters go along with it. Given the fact that reform-minded moguls like Bill Gates and the Wal-mart Waltons have been pumping millions into the campaign, and the usually big-spending Washington Education Association has been putting its money instead into this year’s governor’s race, I-1240 seems a good bet. But the funny part of the story is that it all started with an effort to put Washington on the forefront of education nationwide. Resistance to change proved so strong that today the state has been left in the dust. The resistance is still there, but there’s one thing that’s changed – now it’s about catch-up.

Not a New Idea Anymore

Steve Mullin, president of the Washington Roundtable.

Charter schools weren’t on the Washington reform agenda 20 years ago. They were a brand-new idea at the time, basically independent public schools that operate outside the existing K-12 system, receiving public money for every student that enrolls. The first one opened in Minnesota in 1991. But it’s worth noting that when the idea appeared on the Washington ballot for the first time in 1996, established K-12 interests visited newspaper editorial boards to point out that this state had just launched a made-in-Washington education-reform program. It just needed time to work. And certainly this state shouldn’t go trying something radical in the meantime.

Today there’s nothing radical about charter schools; they’ve been embraced by 41 states and endorsed by President Obama. But Washington is one of the last holdouts. Voters said no two more times, in 2000 and 2004, after groups like WEA led the charge against them. This year’s I-1240 is rather limited in scope; it would allow up to 40 charter schools to be established over the next five years. Sponsors say the measure reflects best practices based on experience in other states. But the basic idea is the same – charter schools would enjoy a bit more freedom from rules governing management and curriculum. In other words, from the enormous bureaucracy that has built up around the system, both administrative and labor.

Which helps to explain opposition from state schools superintendent Randy Dorn, who calls them an unconstitutional usurpation of his authority; from organizations representing K-12 school officials, because every student that transfers to a charter school means less money for their own schools; and from the Washington Education Association, which has an interest in maintaining membership and union rules. It also explains why the idea has big appeal in inner-city areas where schools are failing and where parents are desperate to try anything new.

The fact that Washington doesn’t allow charter schools was one of the reasons Washington scored so poorly in the Obama Adminstration’s “Race to the Top” competition for education-reform funding, notes Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. Another sign Washington has fallen behind. “When I have traveled around the country, people have been asking me for years why Washington doesn’t have a charter school law,” she said. “We are known as a progressive state, so in places like Minnesota, where they have a long tradition of progressive schools, they really wonder.”

If you look at what happened with education reform in this state, though, maybe it’s not that much of a mystery.

Business Behind Reform Drive

Back in the early ‘90s, the big beef in the business community was that kids were graduating without the skills they needed to succeed in the workforce. Then-Gov. Booth Gardner appointed a Commission on Student Learning, studded with some of the biggest names in the state’s business circles, like Boeing Chairman Frank Schrontz. It came up with a roadmap for standards-based reform, and a bill to implement it finally passed in 1993. One element was a competency test that would be administered to students in grades 4, 7 and 10; by 2008 the test was supposed to become a graduation requirement. Another was the idea that schools would be held accountable for their performance. And then there was the idea of flexibility – the idea that rules would be relaxed so that schools and communities could find their own way to achieve results.

To read the yellowed newspaper clippings is to detect a bit of hubris. For instance, the late Joel Pritchard, then lieutenant governor, visited the Kennewick Chamber of Commerce in 1992 to tout what was then called the “Washington 2000” program. Local decision-making was the key, he said. “In the end, change has to come from people in an area making decisions for themselves,” he said. “You’re not going to change the education of America tomorrow.”

He said it might take as long as eight years.

Then Reality Hits

The test, the part everyone remembers, turned out to be a wee bit of a problem. The first batch of results from the Washington Assessment of Student Learning in 1997 came as a shock. Just 48 percent of fourth-graders met the new state reading standard. The next year just 39 percent of seventh-graders passed the reading portion. “There were two basic reactions you could have,” explains Dave Fisher, a former chairman of the Academic Achievement and Accountability Commission, which was charged with developing the assessment program. “One was students are not getting these skills that we say they need, so therefore we better do a better job. The other was that there must be something wrong with the assessment. Guess which one prevailed in Washington state? It was like looking at your watch and realizing you’re late and blaming the watch.”

By the time the 2000 deadline came and went the WASL had launched a firestorm in Washington’s public education circles. The simple way to explain what happened was that the K-12 lobby demanded changes and delays, and business didn’t have the political muscle to hold the line. But there also were complicating factors like the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind initiative that imposed new goals and regulations which proved hard to mesh with the Washington program. Big improvements came in 2004 mainly because the state lowered the scores needed to pass the 4th and 7th grade tests. Graduation requirements were repeatedly postponed, and by 2010 the WASL was junked altogether, replaced by kinder, gentler end-of-course exams that measured student performance and didn’t threaten anyone’s diploma.

As for the other big elements of the program, accountability and flexibility – Washington never did get around to those.

New Approach to Flexibility

Mullin’s group found that whenever talk turned to relaxing a rule, there was an interest ready to leap to its defense. “Ultimately we ended up with big fights over whether the state needed to continue to mandate a half-hour lunch for teachers, and we ended up losing that fight,” he said. “It became clear that you couldn’t go through a rational process for eliminating individual rules and laws because there was a constituency for every one of those things that had worked to get it in place, either a legislator that had a strong commitment to it or an interest group or some combination. So the Roundtable said, okay, why don’t we propose that we sunset all of it and just rebuild it? And when we did that, everyone just got up in arms and every defender of every single one of them just came out of the woodwork.”

Once it became clear the status quo couldn’t be beaten, business began eyeing charter schools, Mullin said. The very premise was that they’d be free of top-down micromanagement; couple that with accountability for results and you’d achieve much of what ed reform was all about, albeit on a smaller scale. Looking back on the 20 years of struggle, Mullin says the effort did accomplish some things – greater clarity in expectations for student learning, this year’s teacher-evaluation bill. But there remains a big achievement gap in the low-income and inner-city areas that charter schools might logically serve. “The standards-based reform efforts have achieved a lot and they were necessary, but they are not sufficient,” Mullin said. “And charter schools are among the things that we believe are necessary to build on the promise of the ed reform efforts that the state started in the early ‘90s.”

Money, Not Reform

The Washington Education Association, the power player in the state’s education lobby, refers questions to People for Our Public Schools, one of two opposition campaigns. Spokesman Alex Fryer says the problem facing Washington’s schools isn’t the way they’re managed; it’s that the Legislature isn’t providing enough money. The Supreme Court said so in its recent McCleary decision, which held the state isn’t fully funding basic education. “Parents and teachers and superintendents and school board members know that the lack of adequate funding for our state’s K-12 schools is the real challenge our kids face. The state has cut $2.6 billion from K-12 schools in the last four years alone. The state Supreme Court ruled that the state is failing its paramount duty based on funding levels prior to the budget cuts. That’s the bottom line. I-1240 won’t do anything to remedy that, and in fact will drain further resources from our public schools.”

Says Melissa Westbrook of No on 1240, “It seems to me that you ought to sharpen the tools in your toolbox and not add a new one.”

But more money without some kind of reform? However small? Suppose the McCleary decision forces the Legislature to spend another billion on education, says Fisher. Peanut-buttering it across the K-12 system to raise teacher salaries and reduce class sizes isn’t going to do much to improve results. Makes more sense to decide what outcomes you want and how to get them – and that’s where charter schools come in. “I don’t think anybody is saying charter schools are a panacea and authorizing 40 charter schools is somehow going to turn around this huge aircraft carrier of our K-12 system, which serves over 1 million students in our state,” he said. “But they are going to provide a lifeboat for a number of students that are falling through the cracks in the system right now. The people who are advocating charter schools are saying we have not shown the ability and the public will to make fundamental changes in how we educate all our students. So let’s start by creating and fostering some pockets of innovation.”