Afternoon Jolt

Charter Battle Heats Up in Olympia (Between Democrats)

Seattle Democrat Pollet takes anti–charter school stand as Tacoma Democrat Sawyer says they offer a solution.

By Josh Feit December 2, 2015

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Last week, I posted about an email state representative Gerry Pollet (D-46, North Seattle) sent to his fellow legislators. In the email, Pollet told his colleagues about the "teaching moment" he gave charter school students who had come to Olympia to lobby  the legislature to amend state law; the Washington state supreme court recently ruled that the 2012 voter-approved charter initiative was unconstitutional because schools that weren't governed by local school boards couldn't receive state funding.

The legislature could save the (nine) charter schools by changing the law. There's a move afoot by Republicans to do just that; I have a call in to the GOP's education leaders—Chad Magendanz (R-5, Issaquah), the ranking Republican on the house education committee, and state senator Steve Litzow (R-41, Mercer Island), the K-12 committee chair, to get the specifics on any charters amendment. Representative Magendanz has said he won't sign off on any K–12 funding plan to meet the McCleary mandate unless the legislature passes a charters amendment

Pollet's email explained how his questions about the students' Southeast Seattle charter school, Summit Sierra, and its policy of capping enrollment, prompted the kids to face their own privilege.

Summit has a much higher rate of low-income and African American student enrollment than Seattle Public Schools at large, though—60 percent of Summit Sierra’s students are on the free and reduced lunch program for low-income kids compared to 37.6 percent in Seattle schools and 40 percent are African American compared to 16.4 percent in the district (according to the group who organized the student lobbying day). Summit is also 79 percent nonwhite.

But Pollet says those numbers don't diminish his point. He told me in an email: "Summit charter was pitched as serving a specific population and geographic area. So, it is inappropriate for you to compare the entire Seattle Public Schools' population to the school, instead of comparing Summit to the high schools (or middle school feeders) in the area that Summit sought, and is receiving, public funding to serve."

Pollet provided data for three Southeast Seattle high schools (Cleveland, Rainier Beach, and Garfield) and South West Seattle's Sealth. They are 71 percent, 82 percent, 60 percent, and 62 percent low-income respectively. And 94 percent, 97 percent, 63 percent, and 72 percent nonwhite, respectively. (Franklin High School is in Southeast Seattle as well, by the way, about 20 blocks south of Summit. Franklin is 95 percent nonwhite, 30 percent African American, and 68 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch.)

Pollet continues: "It is clear that Summit's demographics are not lower income, or more diverse than the public schools serving the same area which Summit said it was going to serve."

Cynara Lilly, spokeswoman for pro-charter group Act Now for Washington students  says, "the argument isn't traditional versus's how do we have a system that doesn't fail our kids and doesn't consistently fail low-income kids of color. No one forced kids to go to Summit. They needed help and had a choice."

Pollet goes on though to point out that when you compare charter schools to traditional public schools "you also need to look at...if the school serves a higher percentage of special education or English Language Learner [ELL] students than surrounding schools. If the school is going to close achievement gaps for children in southeast and southwest Seattle, as claimed, it should show that it is providing services for those high need students in greater proportion than the surrounding schools."

However, I found that Summit's numbers of ELL students are on par with the schools in southeast and southwest Seattle. Summit reports that 17 percent of its students are ELL while Cleveland is at 7 percent, Rainier Beach is at 21 percent, Garfield is at 6 percent, Sealth is at 12 percent, and Franklin is about 12 percent. 

Pollet concludes, though, that charter schools have an advantage because "they cap enrollment, they require early application, and they don't have to accept every student who shows up with special needs or who is homeless—while the surrounding public schools do accept those students."

A handful of Pollet's Democratic state legislature colleagues announced they support the pro-charters effort: Seattle state representative Eric Pettigrew (D-37, Southeast Seattle), suburban Seattle state representative Judy Clibborn (D-41, Mercer Island), state representative Larry Springer (D-45, Kirkland), and state senators Mark Mullet (D-5, Issaquah), and Steve Hobbs (D-44, Lake Stevens).

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Charter students with state senator Steve Hobbs.

And this week, David Sawyer (D-29, Parkland, Tacoma) was the latest Democrat to split with his caucus and support charters. One of the state's nine charter schools, Green Dot Destiny Middle School, is in Tacoma. Nearly two-thirds of the students in the nine charters are from low-income families—and 70 percent are students of color.

Sawyer says: "Public charter schools like Destiny are not the only solution, but they are part of a range of solutions that increase access to high quality public education—particularly for children of color, who stand to benefit the most from [charters]. A child's zip code or the color of her skin should not dictate whether or not he or she will graduate from high school, attend college, or achieve a future career success. Charter schools represent a path forward for some students who are underserved by our current educational system."

The anti-charters Save Seattle Schools blog accuses Act Now of being an "astro-turf Gates-funded" group because they get funding from the Gates Foundation, the education reform poster child

Full disclosure: Lilly worked at PubliCola as its business manager in 2010.

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