Finding Inspiration for the Washington Charter School Push

The Washington State charter school movement suffers from an enthusiasm gap, at least according to an offhand remark made by The Seattle Times’ Danny Westneat: I-1240, the charter school initiative, has had to be backed by “a few rich folks” who had to “buy their way onto the ballot” by spending $6 per signature, “probably because there was no army of impassioned volunteers burning to go door to door in the name of charter schools.” Westneat brings this up to contrast what has been a legitimately grassroots campaign to legalize same-sex marriage.

But is Westneat’s comparison fair? Same-sex marriage is, after all, one of the defining social issues of our day. Participants in the debate over charter schools, on the other hand, are by-and-large are education wonks–Westneat’s aforementioned “rich folks”, the Gateses, included. Leaving alone Westneat’s objection to the influence of large donors on elections, or the question of what issues should tackled via voter initiative rather than the legislative process, should the supporters of an issue be embarassed if it isn’t a blockbuster like Referendum 74? Surely not.

But while it is true that gay marriage is a hot-button issue, what is truly remarkable is its rapid trajectory towards being a settled one. Even if the outcome of R-74 is still up in the air, in the eight years since the last charter school referendum same-sex marriage has attained an aura of inevitability, with its opponents quickly finding themselves on the wrong side of history. Charter schools, meanwhile, still seem to be viewed by many Washingtonians as an educational fad they’d rather this state just sit out. Since I-1240 and R-74 will appear on the same ballot, charter school supporters have a natural opportunity to draw inspiration from the highly successful marriage equality movement.

After all, both movements seek significant changes to cherished social institutions. And in both cases, supporters have had to recast these changes as less significant, which is to say less threatening, than they might otherwise appear. Same-sex marriage supporters have had to refute the implication that a straight couple’s marriage is in any way affected by the marriage of a gay couple down the street. I-1240, meanwhile, with its limit of only 40 charters in the whole state in the first five years, further restricted to only non-profit and non-religious organizations, is an exercise in the art of being non-threatening.

The problem with the strategy of appearing harmless, is, of course, that it creates a risk of being seen as irrelevant. This, I believe, is what differentiates the two movements in Washington: beyond just dispelling the fear of change, the marriage equality movement has an affirmative narrative whereas the charter movement has none. The marriage equality’s narrative comes in the form of the personal stories of same-sex partners and their families, stories which have tapped into our shared understanding of what marriage, and only marriage, fully symbolizes: the love of two people sharing a life and growing old together. It is not just that voters’ reasons for saying no to same sex marriage now seem increasingly foolish and parochial; we can say yes to same-sex marriage in an affirmation of the kind of love we all would like to have.

Charter schools have no such narrative because they have too often been put forward as an implicit criticism of traditional public schools. Their two main promises made been that they will perform better than traditional public schools, in absolute terms, and that they will force traditional schools to improve through competitive pressure. Even today the language of I-1240 backers relies on criticism, albeit heavily qualified: traditional public schools are good on the whole, but they let too many students “fall through the cracks.” Voters should be given something to say ‘yes’ to.

There is a compelling story charter supporters can tell, which is itself about the unique story of every childhood. At their best, charter schools are opportunities to weave tightly-knit school communities around particular educational approaches, philosophies, or themes, such as language immersion, environmental education, or even classical Greek and Latin. They therefore increase each child’s chances of having an education that is special, meaningful, and nourishes his dreams and aspirations. While it is true that many school districts attempt to offer a diverse portfolio of programs, doing so is at odds with what school districts are designed to do, which is to provide a comprehensive, consistent, and conveniently accessible educational experience to the majority of children who do not need, or want, more specialized programs. Relieving districts from the burden of having to be everything to everybody makes charter schools complementary to district schools, not adversarial.

Admittedly, making school special and meaningful for children is not as obvious a sell as marital bliss. Traditonal public schools provide consistency because of a laudable egalitarian ideal of providing children with comparable educational experiences regardless of their origins and means, an ideal which must be carefully reconciled with the idea of making every school experience meaningfully unique. But the real problem is the more recent narrowing of our schooling vocabulary, as if nothing could be said about schools other than their test scores. To appreciate how absurd this is, imagine that the only thing anyone could talk about when considering same-sex marriage was whether it would lower divorce rates. But expanding the conversation about education with an affirmative narrative is a noble task for charter school supporters to engage in. And as the success of the marriage equality movement shows, with the help of good messaging, the electorate can come around remarkably quickly.