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School Choice & Charters

Teachers United, and Apart, in Washington State

By Andrew Ujifusa — October 15, 2012 3 min read
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When I visited the offices of the Kent Education Association south of Seattle, where teachers were manning a phone bank to support Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jay Inslee, there was a white board on one of the walls with a schedule of campaign events for the next few days. But there was also something more lively: a collection of their favorite quotations from Washington residents in response to the teachers’ political pitches. Which one stood out the most? “My husband tells me how to vote.”

During the visit, one teacher I overheard on the phone said she hoped the woman on the other end would reconsider, and then hung up. I asked her if she has been speaking with a supporter of state Attorney General Rob McKenna, the Republican gubernatorial candidate. No, she had not. The response she got was: “I’m not happy with the system. It’s always two white men.” That remark promptly went up on the white board.

Responding to the teachers’ talking points on why Inslee would be best for schools, one resident had asked a teacher for Inslee’s stance on marijuana usage (a proposal to legalize and regulate marijuana use in Washington State is also on the ballot this year). Teachers said if they reached a McKenna supporter, that person would quickly hang up instead of listening to the Inslee pitch, so it doesn’t sound as though they reached a lot of undecided voters.

In a Seattle Times article last month, Mary Lindquist, the Washington Education Association’s president, said from teachers’ perspective that helping Jay Inslee win is more important than defeating the charter initiative. But Connie Compton, the Kent Education Association’s president, isn’t so sure teachers’ sentiment was captured accurately in that piece. To her, helping Inslee and rejecting charter schools for a fourth time in the state are equally important. In her opinion, the two campaigns are strongly connected, because she fears that private-school vouchers and other policy initiatives distasteful to the teachers’ union are lurking on the horizon.

“My concern is that if we elect Rob McKenna, regardless of what happens with charters, we’re going to go down that road,” she said.

Kent teacher Camille Yuasa, taking a break from the phone bank, was blunt about charters’ impact: “They’re public in the way that they’re using public funds. I look at it like they’re experimenting with money ... [the students] are not guinea pigs.”

So that’s one group of teachers. But there’s another educator organization that has the opposite view: Teachers United is an organization of about 250 teachers across 10 districts in the state who are supporting the charter school ballot item, Initiative 1240.

When I spoke to the group’s co-founder and executive director, Chris Eide, he said one of the group’s main goals is to get 100 percent of Washington students graduating from high school. He said the group supported charter schools in part because teachers often felt “handcuffed” by the state curriculum. (Teachers United is only about a year-and-a-half old, and is only in Washington State for the moment.)

“I know a lot of teachers are really excited about the flexibility that charter schools have to adapt to the needs of students,” Eide said.

But Eide stressed that Teachers United doesn’t have a charters-or-bust attitude, since it studied the initiative closely and believes that because charters can be shut down efficiently, in his view, Washington can avoid the fate of other states that have trouble closing failing charters. He singled out Arizona and Ohio as two examples where such problems existed. (Under 1240, initial charters would last five years before they could be revoked.) Teachers United, which receives funding from the Seattle Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, also encourages its members to be active in their local teachers’ union.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.