ACCORDING TO WASHINGTON'S Supreme Court, our children will enter a failed public school system this year that does not offer the ample educational opportunities that our state’s Constitution mandates. The Court’s recent decision McCleary v. State of Washington is a detailed analysis of the manner in which Washington is failing to uphold the constitutional dictate that “It is the paramount duty of the State to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders.”
That paramount duty is as clear as it is written: all children within Washington (regardless of whether they are what some cheekily call “illegals”) are entitled to the positive right of ample educational opportunity (that is, “considerably more than just adequate”), which is provided by the State (that is, government), using a “means of dependable and regular tax sources.”
Unfortunately, the Court’s decision provided political fodder during a gubernatorial election year for Washington State Republican Party Chairman Kirby Wibur’s blame-game. In a comment following the decision, Wilbur said that failures in our education system were caused by the “Democrats,” whose alleged “failure to prioritize state spending on our kids and our future economic health” has given rise to what Wilbur calls a “fiasco.”
Wilbur’s partisan response conveniently disregards the Supreme Court’s observation that without funding education reform is an empty promise. In reaching its decision, the Supreme Court heeded the chair of the state’s Board of Education testimony which emphasized, among other things, that the actual costs needed to run our public schools outpace the money provided by our Legislature. This situation has led local school districts to rely heavily on levy funds just to meet core operational expenses.
In reality, the economic disaster caused by deregulating our financial industry during the first decade of this millennium has made our state broke. If we want to properly fund education as our Constitution demands (and as our societal values demand), then we need to generate state income. And if you really want to point fingers, then ask yourself which obstructionist party of naysayers in Washington is the one stonewalling our state’s attempts to raise revenue.
One proposed medicine for the ailing health of our state’s educational system has come in the form of a red pill called a Charter School. The hotly debated issue of whether Charter Schools are, or are not, right for Washington State will be on this November’s Ballot: Initiative 1240, if passed, would allow up to 40 public Charter Schools in Washington State over a five-year period. Charter Schools exist in all but nine states, but Washington has voted them down in 1996, 2000 and 2004.
There are many roads across the Charter School debate. The one most direct to the debate’s epicenter is, in my mind, the issue of motive. Policies that drive government services are ones largely motivated by society’s interests at-large. Private industry, by contrast, is driven by policies that mostly consider profitability alone par excellence for success. Those same business motivations underpinning private industry endeavors, however, are not also suitable for operating our public education system.
Consider these examples: road maintenance is a government service mainly because private industry could not realistically profit from it. The sale of smartphones, by comparison, is suitable for private industry because it is both a service and commodity off which profits can be made. But the way in which profits influence and drive business policies in private industry can have devastating and discriminatory effects.
Turning again to our examples: government’s end-goal in the “road business” is to provide safe, well-planned and reliable roads for its citizens. The means used to reach that goal include things such as implementing a fair process for delegating construction contracts that pay fair wages and satisfy labor standards.
Apple’s end-goal in selling its I-Phones, by contrast, is to maximize profits for its shareholders. To accomplish that end, Apple, among other things, depresses its overhead cost by utilizing manufacturers in China that can provide an incredibly cheap product. In the end, the business decision to ship its manufacturing largely overseas maximizes Apple’s potential profit-margin. But in order to provide that cheap product, Chinese companies disregard basic labor standards otherwise followed in the U.S. Thus Apple’s means of earning greater profits justify its end only if you accept the fact that those means are ones that facilitate the violation of basic human rights and deny Americans manufacturing jobs.
The difference between these two motives – business-motivation v. government services-motivation – illustrates the possible adverse effect Charter Schools might have on our children’s educational opportunities. Those who oppose corporate-run Charter Schools feel this same laissez faire shortfall – a governance model not driven by public good but by business gain – would exploit, and ultimately harm, our children’s educational future.
When asked about Charter Schools, Matt Loschen, who opposes them, first explained that there “is plenty of evidence that Charter Schools simply haven't worked in other states, and end up giving kids a worse education at a higher cost” (a different route through the Charter Schools debate all together). But he continued by adding that it is “a legitimate concern that Charter School advocates are in fact working to weaken public sector unions … as well as seek profits for themselves, rather than improve the education of Washington's kids.”
(Echoing Loschen’s sentiments, I can personally picture a dystopian future that includes Charter School officials quantifying our children by dollar figures rather than learned success. It is also a public misconception to believe that “not-for-profit” corporations cannot earn profits; they can and indeed do.)
Despite their opposition, Charter Schools have gained a great deal of support. Proponents counter by explaining that Charter Schools established under I-1240 would be subject to government oversight and public accountability. In an email exchange, Shannon Campion, Washington’s Executive Director for Stand for Children, told me that “Charter Schools are a great idea for Washington State because they are another option for parents to choose the right learning environment for their children.”
Campion continued by explaining that “Charter Schools are independently managed public schools that are operated by approved nonprofits. They are open to all students and receive funding based on student enrollment just like traditional public schools. I-1240 finally gives Washington families the option of public Charter Schools which are already available in 41 other states.”
In his The Education of Henry Adams, the great grandson of our second President observed that the habits of institutionalized education may, in many ways, stifle rather than foster one’s education. I believe, however, Washington’s public education system, if permitted the benefit of state-generated income, and if treated as the “paramount duty” our Constitution dictates, is alone capable of providing the excellent learning opportunities our children so entirely deserve.
Trent Latta is an attorney and lives in Kirkland. He can be contacted at TrentLatta@gmail.com