This Washington

Legislature Should Suspend Unfunded Charter Schools Initiative

Former state legislator Brendan Williams argues that—following the Seattle Times' logic that unfunded initiatives should be suspended—the legislature should overturn the unfunded charter-school measure passed this month.

By Brendan Williams November 28, 2012


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This guest op/ed is by former Democratic state Rep. Brendan Williams, who represented the 22nd legislative district.

In a recent edict to governor-elect Jay Inslee–against whom they editorialized constantly (and donated $75,750 in ads for his opponent)–my conservative friends at the Seattle Times demand “leadership from Gov-elect Jay Inslee, who opposed Initiative 1240” in implementing the narrowly-passed charter school initiative.

There’s an interesting contrast to this demand.

Throughout the 2011 election cycle, and thereafter, the Times crusaded against Initiative 1163, which would have mandated additional training for long-term in-home caregivers, just as it had against its predecessor: Initiative 1029. The state legislature didn't honor I-1029, prompting I-1163.

In one representative editorial against I-1163, on October 7, 2011, the Times wrote of I-1029 that voters “passed it, voting with their hearts, looking at the ballot title only. . . . Not one voter in a thousand really understood it. (Emphasis added). 

On November 8, 2011, 65 percent of voters backed I-1163’s stronger caregiver training and background checks with 65% of the vote. The very next day, the Times editorialized that the legislature should “suspend Initiative 1163, and send this message to all initiative sponsors: If you want something that costs the government money, provide a way to pay for it.”  (Emphasis added). 

On November 25, 2011, the Times wrote, “Even though voters supported the measure to pay for more training for long-term-care workers, the state cannot afford the additional $15 million.”

On January 31, 2012, the Times dismissed I-1163 as “another warm, fuzzy idea that sounds good until the bill arrives.”  On February 20, 2012, the Times editorial headline read: “Repeal unfunded voter initiatives 728, 732 and 1163”.

So let’s compare these past accusations that voters are inattentive and fiscally irresponsible–and the Times’ position that unfunded initiatives should be suspended–with the Times’ current enthusiasm for charter schools.

On November 18, the Times wrote of Initiative 1240, whose proponents outspent opponents 15 to 1, and which 49.3 percent of voters opposed.  and was opposed by 49.3% of voters, “Voters have spoken on charters. They now fully expect the governor, the Legislature and other education leaders to get on board.”

The Times' position on charters is inconsistent with its earlier opposition to unfunded initiatives. In applying the Times’ previous standards on I-1163, legislators should feel no obligation to honor I-1240. According to the Office of Financial Management, I-1240 will cost the state a minimum of $3.09 million over five years. None of this is funded, and the state faces a huge revenue shortfall. 

While I-1163 served the laudable imperative of protecting vulnerable adults, saving the state liability costs, I-1240 is simply a social science experiment wholly funded by a handful of multi-millionaires (for example, Wal-Mart’s Alice Walton of Arkansas gave $1.7 million). Grotesquely, the $10.9 million I-1240 raised – ostensibly just to create 40 charter schools–was not far off the $12 million Inslee raised in his winning campaign for governor.

Further, as the Washington state supreme court ruled in the McCleary decision, the state's educational needs are woefully underfunded. Special education is among the casualties, as the Times itself acknowledged in a November 5, 2012 editorial, headlined “Seattle must do more to improve special education."

All empirical evidence shows charter schools underserve kids with special education needs, which would only compound the problem the Times has highlighted. The nonpartisan General Accounting Office could only conclude that, nationally, “charter schools may be discouraging students with disabilities from enrolling.”

Moreover, applying the Times’ conclusion that only 0.1% of voters understood caregiver training, it’s reasonable to ask if voters knew all the details of the vastly more complicated I-1240 – particularly given that it lacked any visible opposition campaign. 

For example, I-1240’s “trigger” language is drawn straight from the far-right American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) – allowing a simple majority of teachers, or parents, at any public school to hijack it and convert it to a charter with no public notice or disclosure of the funding backing their petition drive. Did anyone really think the Lakeside School crowd would spend almost $11 million just to create 40 charter schools? 

This ALEC language is buried on page 19 of the 40-page initiative.  Did all of the 50.7% of voters approving it know that? 

Rather than create a new educational bureaucracy, the Legislature should follow the Times’ previous advice: “If you want something that costs the government money, provide a way to pay for it.”  I-1240 is a “warm, fuzzy idea that sounds good until the bill arrives” – it should be suspended by a cash-strapped state. 

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