Washington State: Charters Survive to Fight Another Day

Six months, four weeks, two days. That’s how long it took for the Washington state charter school law to come back to life after the state Supreme Court struck it down September 4, 2015.

For lawyers attending the Legal Seminar of the Alliance of Public Charter School Attorneys last month, the story had elements of a legal thriller. Told by Tom Franta, CEO of the Washington State Charter Schools Association (and former Minnesota resident), the story showcased both the ongoing obstacles to chartering, and the tenacity of those committed to overcome them. Welcome to 25 years of chartering!

Washington state charter advocates were stunned when the Supreme Court found that charters were not “common schools” as described in their state constitution, and therefore could not access certain funding. No matter that the definition of “common schools” was interpreted by judges in 1909.

Nine open charter schools with 1200+ students were at risk. There was a slim Republican majority in the Senate and a two-vote Democratic majority in the House. The Democratic governor was anti-charter.

There were challenges. The court case remained open, but the charter law could be finally invalidated at any time. Parents and students were new to the charter sector–would they engage? Democratic politics made passage of legislation unlikely. Ballot Initiative would take too long to save schools, even though that’s how Washington’s charter law originally passed in 2012.

Then 8,405 calls to legislators. 1,593 visitors to the state capitol. 1,000+ Christmas and Valentine cards. 135+ earned media stories. 26+ editorials. 23+broadcast stories. A digital campaign by Actnowforwastudents.org with 21,000 supporters and 70,000 online “actions” taken.

The Republican Senate bill passed with just two Democratic votes. The Democratic House leader vowed not to pass any bill without majority support. But the Speaker knew that lots of money was being raised by charter advocates, and the grassroots were working on his members. His two-vote majority was at risk in the fall elections. He called an off-site caucus meeting and conceded to bring a bill to the floor. The teachers union chose the Senate bill for passage, apparently thinking it was more vulnerable to legal challenge than other options. The Republican-backed Senate bill passed the Democratic House. Really? The Democratic governor let the bill become law without his signature–the first time since 1981. Wow.

What worked in this remarkable turnaround? Fundraising was huge, buttressing the grassroots effort. Messaging was positive: “Save our Schools.” That avoided the charter issue. Traditional media was more than 2:1 positive and the digital 20,000 supporters provided pressure at key moments.

The foundation for the battle? A PAC and 501c4 nonprofit advocacy organization, now stronger than ever. That’s good, as charter advocates will need them. On April 7, 2016, the Washington Education Association announced its intent to file new litigation. I’m betting on the charters.

Too bad we’ve forgotten about the kids.