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Public Charter Schools Ride Blue Wave in Washington

By Lisa Macfarlane, DFER Washington State Director

Washington, which is a very blue state, just had an enormous blue wave roll over us last Tuesday. Obama won by 14 points. We passed a gay marriage referendum by the largest margin in the country. We legalized marijuana use. Democrats kept control of the state House and Senate. The re-districted “swing” 1st congressional district elected a Democrat, Suzan DelBene, by more than seven points. Former Congressman Jay Inslee is the Governor-elect, adding to the 28-year stretch of Democratic control of our Governor’s mansion.

But, that’s not even the crest of the wave. Washington, which is the 42nd state to join the union, is now the 42nd state to allow public charter schools. We did not get here through the legislative process, like every other state. On the fourth try, a voter initiative lifted our ban on charter schools. This is one of the most monumental education reform wins in years.

So after three prior loses at the ballot box, how did I-1240, our charter school initiative manage to ride such a large blue wave safely to shore?

Last Tuesday, voters in the Evergreen State showed their independent streak. On the one hand they elected Jay Inslee, a new Democratic Governor who received strong support from the Washington Education Association (WEA) and opposed charter schools on the campaign trail. On the other hand they approved I-1240, whose biggest opponent was the WEA, one of the ten strongest teachers unions in the country. 

Clearly, Washington voters want more educational options and faster change than what gets doled out by the legislature and the WEA. They have decided it’s no longer defensible to cling to a status quo that leaves so many kids behind. Voters realize that we need to accelerate the pace of school improvement because kids don’t have long shelf lives, and because our economic future is inextricably linked with the quality of our public schools.

In the past WEA has been able to use its political clout in Olympia to control the education agenda and stop reforms. But the charter school bill that the union killed in the 2012 legislative session came back in the form of I-1240, a stronger charter school measure that finally tipped the scales in favor of reform.

Of course, the biggest winners with the passage of I-1240 are kids and families who will now have the option of high-quality public charter schools. But, other winners include education reformers on both sides of the aisle who campaigned tirelessly for I-1240, and Representative Eric Pettigrew, Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland, and their allies who bucked the democratic party and insisted we give our kids a better future; a future that starts with better schools.

Thanks to the passage of our charter school initiative, we have changed the playing field and political dynamics of education reform in Washington State for years to come. We had to fight the establishment to get there, but voters were smart enough to see what was at stake. The 40 charter schools to be authorized under I-1240 will give thousands more Washington students a chance to succeed. And student success is what matters most.

Lisa Macfarlane is the Washington State Director for Democrats for Education Reform, a co-founder of the League of Education Voters, a past President of Schools First (Seattle's levy and bond committee), the sponsor of two statewide education funding initiatives, and a PCO in the 46th District. After years of opposing and voting against charter schools, Lisa checked her ideological baggage at the door and visited a few charter schools. She is now convinced that high quality charter schools have an important role to play in successful school reform. Read more about Lisa here.