School Choice & Charters Opinion

Washington: A Love Story

By Nancy Flanagan — September 14, 2016 4 min read
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You’ve probably asked yourself the same question: What if I could live anywhere?

What if I could do what I love to do (say, teaching) anywhere--without regard to where I grew up, went to school or started my career, where my family lives, where my economic needs take me? What if I got to choose a place because it suits me, because it’s a place where I feel most energized and at home?

Several decades ago, a teacher-buddy of mine whose husband was finishing law school shared such a process with her carpool. They were young and childless, and figured it was the best time in their lives to look at--and act on-- all the factors that make a place ideal: Climate. Politics. Career opportunities. Natural Beauty. Access to culture. People like them.

They chose, and they moved. To Virginia. And they still live there, as far as I know.

I never had a window in my life where such a choice was feasible. I don’t regret living and working in my home state--it’s beautiful and offered many advantages. But if I could go back, and choose--my top criteria would include a state which honors, preserves and funds public education, if there even is such a place any more.

The revelatory power of social media has--for better and worse--made teachers more aware of the gross disparities between states, in terms of who’s calling the shots and who’s getting paid fairly. Any teacher who’s paying attention knows about states that are sinkholes for predatory charterism, states where bright students with good grades are forced to repeat grades because they opted out of standardized tests, and states where privatization is encouraged by policy, ruining public school systems in the process.

We’ve got information and images a-plenty, if we want to look at states which might have some educational moxie, in addition to the aforementioned climate, politics, culture, etc. In addition, teachers are now talking to each other across district and state boundaries, sharing information about how education policy is impacting their daily practice, where market-based reforms have the deepest roots and where teachers’ judgment and experience is most devalued.

Where would you go, if you could go anywhere, as an educator?

My work as a consultant has taken me to over 35 states to do workshops, coaching and presentations, and in every place, I’ve had the great pleasure of talking with excellent teachers about changes they’ve seen and things they’re worried about--or proud of. I’ve been impressed by programming initiatives I’ve seen in Vermont, and by strength of teacher voice in New York. I’ve seen remarkable teacher-led leadership in Wisconsin and Maryland, too. I’ve also seen states (North Carolina springs to mind) that incubated promising programs, only to turn around and destroy them. In other states (Oregon, for example), I’ve met small clusters of amazing teachers who are not waiting for funding and “technical assistance” and legislation to innovate.

But if I got to pick, I’d choose the state of Washington, for reasons beyond the mountains, craft beers and the cool PNW vibe.

Several years ago, I was on hand when Stories from School WA, a successful long-term multi-teacher blog was launched. I was there to give newbie bloggers ideas about writing, content, purpose and handling contentious issues. What struck me was their independent spirit and thoughtful approach to both practice and policy. These teachers had clear ideas about what was best for their students, and were willing to put those ideas out there. They were not intimidated--and I’ve met plenty of intimidated and beaten-down teachers.

Since then, it’s been interesting and heartening to watch Washington cope with the same issues as other states. Seattle teachers’ boycott of harmful standardized tests, for example. That’s professional courage.

Considering how much Gates money is spread around in his home state, it’s close to astonishing that Washington has held off the charter onslaught as successfully as it has, through repeated referendum voting and challenges in court. Even their governor seems to have a conscience when it comes to destroying public education, rare in these days when reformy money has as much impact on Democratic as Republican lawmakers. As this bland podcast from two days ago shows, however--the fight is endless.

I just returned home from a refreshing vacation in Seattle and Olympic National Park. We came through Bainbridge Island on a day that was certainly the first, or one of the first, days of school. There were multiple stops for student groups crossing the streets, hand-lettered signs about buses turning, parents in the pick-up line, soccer practice and excited, backpack-wearing kiddos everywhere.

It felt--briefly--that all was right with the world, and with public education. Hold that thought.

Which state is your nominee for best place to live, education-wise?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.