As the state legislature nears the end of session with no solution yet on a charter school funding fix, more than 1,100 students in Washington face uncertainty over their future. And with them, leaders in the business community are concerned for their future workforce.
There may be 50,000 unfilled jobs in Washington state by 2017, due to employers being unable to find candidates with the skills and education required, according to projections by the Boston Consulting Group.
Some business leaders look at those numbers and say that different approaches to education and alternate pathways to graduation should be considered. A majority of Washington voters would seem to agree, having passed an initiative in 2012 to allow for charter schools in the state.
Those schools opened in 2015 but found their future in jeopardy as in September the Washington State Supreme Court ruled their funding mechanism unconstitutional. The court found charter schools ineligible for “common school” monies from the state general fund without the public oversight of an elected school board.
School Choice ‘Imperative’
The legislature has tried to address the issue with a bill giving the schools access to lottery revenue, SB 6194. It subsequently was approved by the Senate in January, and sent to the House, where it is now stalled.
At a public hearing in January the Association of Washington Business testified in favor of SB 6149. Amy Anderson, AWB Director of Government Affairs for education, called it “imperative” that the state’s students have educational choices including charter schools.
“With an aging workforce creating job openings that businesses are finding difficult to fill, it is critical that education programs are available to all who are willing to learn and have the desire to pursue a career,” Anderson told the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
Monroe-Based Boatmaker Sees Workforce Benefits Of Charters
Ryan Brown, Human Resources Manager at Monroe-based boat manufacturer Fluid Motion, also testified in favor of the bill, calling it critical for businesses and education to work together and fulfil the need for a skilled workforce.
Fluid Motion has been working with a skill center in Mount Vernon, the Northwest Career and Technical Academy, which is run by a group of several public school districts but Brown said they’ve suffered from funding cuts. “Charter schools provide one more opportunity for business to connect with our kids, mentor and guide them, showing them the opportunities in diverse industries in Washington state, such as marine manufacturing,” Brown said.
Roundtable: It’s About Preparedness For Opportunity
The Washington Roundtable, a non-profit organization comprised of top executives of the state’s major employers, has been advocating for charter schools for more than a decade.
“We’re concerned Washington students are not in a position to take advantage of the great jobs in our economy,” Washington Roundtable President Steve Mullin told Lens, citing projections that nearly 70 percent of jobs will require post-secondary education, while just 31 percent of the state’s students are earning two- or four-year degrees.
The organization’s goal is for 70 percent of students to obtain a post-secondary credential by age 26, which Mullin said requires increasing the number of low-income and minority students obtaining degrees.
‘Failure’s Not An Option’
Lisa Macfarlane, Washington State Director of Democrats for Education Reform, said families “desperately want this public school option.” She warned that without legislative action, schools with mostly low-income, minority students will shut down.
“Failure’s not an option, we’ve got to keep these schools open serving these kids. There’s demand in other parts of the state for these schools,” Macfarlane said.
Reaching Kids Who’re ‘Not Doing Well Under The Traditional System’
Jim Spady, charter school advocate and president of Seattle-based Dick’s Drive-Ins, said traditional public schools leave minority and low-income students behind.
“If you look at the drop-out rates and the test scores, many of those kids are not succeeding in the traditional public school system, and they haven’t for decades,” Spady said. “So clearly what we’ve been doing isn’t helping all kids, and we need a way to reach out to kids who are not doing well under the traditional system, and that’s what charter schools do.”
For 6th grader Heskiyas Wondaferew, attending a charter school is making him more optimistic for college. He said Excel, a charter school in Kent, has been focused on preparing him for college in a way he didn’t think other schools would.
“Excel has changed the way I look at school,” Wondaferew told members of the house education committee earlier this month. “My old school was just not the right fit for me. At Excel, school is fun and the teachers make learning exciting and awesome.”
Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe (D-1) recommended against passing SB 6194 out of committee, and said in an interview with TVW that while she would support charter schools under the control of an elected school board, she couldn’t support taking lottery revenues away for charter schools instead of creating programs for all students.
“Our one million students are so diversified, they need all kinds of programs to meet those needs,” McAuliffe told TVW.
Opponents of charter schools point to the McCleary decision and say the state should be focused on funding the public schools already in existence rather than diverting funds to a new system. They say the public school districts already have enough flexibility to offer diverse and innovative programs, such as high schools focused on aviation or the arts.
Yet not everyone views funding charter schools as taking away money from public schools. Proponents say the funds are going to the same students, whether they’re attending charter schools or traditional public schools.
The Money Follows The Student
Testifying before a senate hearing last month in favor of SB 6194, Shawn Lewis from the Spokane School District said: “We don’t see this as a loss of revenue, we see this as shifting resources to schools where those students are being served.” Spokane’s two charter schools are the only ones in the state authorized by a public school board, rather than the Washington Charter School Commission. Lewis called them an “important arrow in the quiver” for serving the district’s students.
If SB 6194 doesn’t clear committee in the House, a so-called shell bill that was filed the same day it stalled could serve as a vehicle to bring a substantive measure closely similar to 6194 directly to the House floor for a vote.
But supporters of SB 6194 believe there are enough favorable votes to get the bill passed in the House if it emerges from committee.