Romney State. Obama State. Charter States.

(Guest Post by Collin Hitt

A Romney red state and an Obama blue state both went for charter schools yesterday. Georgia and Washington faced statewide ballot initiatives to create and expand charter schools. Both measures passed.

The past two years have been years of school choice. As Greg has noted, vouchers and tax credit scholarship programs have seen a renaissance and massive growth. Charter schools have grown in turn, often receiving little notice while voucher programs and tenure reforms draw the attention of a dwindling number of anti-reformers.

Here’s a bit of policy background for understanding yesterday’s elections. Two laws must be in place in order for charter schools to open in meaningful numbers. There needs to be a law that allows charter schools to exist, obviously. And there needs to be a law giving charter schools a realistic chance of being approved by those overseeing the application process.

Forty-one states had created charter school laws, before yesterday. But several of those laws, like Virginia’s, are practically meaningless since they entrust the entire approval process for charter schools to school boards and union-dominated interests. This issue – that of charter school “authorizing” – is most important now facing the charter school movement.

Some states have created independent commissions to vet charter school proposals. Others have entrusted colleges to approve charter schools. These entities don’t need local school district say-so in order to approve a charter school in a given area. Independent authorizers bring impartiality to a process otherwise dominated by special interests. Charter commissions and universities aren’t crusading change agents either, just less partial authorities that in many states have allowed the charter school sector to bloom.

Georgia has had a charter school law on the books for years. It had an independent charter school commission for a time, as well, until the state supreme court ruled that a constitutional amendment was needed in order to bypass school district authority when approving charter schools. So the legislature placed an amendment on the ballot to do just that. Amendment One was up for a vote last night.

Washington was, before yesterday, the largest state to not have a charter school law. Through the state’s ballot initiative process, a new charter school law was proposed. This “Initiative 1240” would create a charter law, legally allowing charter schools to open. It would also create a statewide commission like that debated in Georgia, which would realistically approve applications to open charter schools. According to the Washington Policy Center’s Liv Finne, “Initiative 1240 would give Washington the best charter school law in the country.”

Both Georgia and Washington approved the measures. Georgia and Washington are not similar states. Georgia is reliably red and Romney carried it by 8 points. Washington is blue; Obama won there by 12. Georgia approved the charter school measure by 16 points, while Washington adopted the charter law by 2.4 points.

There were, of course, some common factors in both states, mainly the fierce union and bureaucratic opposition to charter schools. Both initiatives were on the one hand attacked as part of an elitist agenda of corporations and billionaires; this was supposed to incite the Occupy and labor union crowds. The teacher unions tried to hide behind the usual smokescreen of local control, as well, hoping to turn the Tea Party and rural voters against a market driven reform. The tactics – devoid of policy substance – didn’t work in either place.

Charter schools prevailed. And not just that, they prevailed on a day that was a mixed bag for other education reform voters. Between candidates and ballot initiatives, there were a number of notable elections, and the results were all over the place. Idaho rejected merit pay and tenure reforms. Michigan rebuked the teachers unions’ attempt to constitutionally guarantee collective bargaining. Republicans retook the Senate in Wisconsin.Tony Bennett lost in Indiana; Mike Pence won in Indiana.

Jay has noted that the status quo has no more intellectual defenders. Elites have bailed on the old way of doing things. There’s disagreement about which reforms are best. And the unions will still block reforms whenever they can, while remaining a potent force in elections.

But when it comes to whether American needs more school choice, the debate is over. Yesterday was evidence of that. Washington and Georgia agree, charter schools are good. Mitt Romney and Barack Obama agree, we need more school choice. There is still disagreement over how much school choice is appropriate, whether charter schools are sufficient, or whether private school options should be expanded as well. That debate will be important, but it was the thoughtful conversation that anti-reformers never wanted America to have.

13 Responses to Romney State. Obama State. Charter States.

  1. George Mitchell says:

    I spent the last two days doing some school research for my grandchildren in the Phoenix area. Open enrollment, charters, etc. are the order of the day. The public school district I visited laid out all the choices available to parents. The charter school was oversubscribed, for obvious reasons (6th graders doing math that I barely mastered in high school). My experience, while anecdotal and focused on one state’s metro area, causes me to have a more upbeat view of how far choice has come. Congratulations to all those who have provided energy to the AZ choice climate.

  2. Mike G. says:

    What’s your guess on how effective those WA charters will be 5 years hence?

    I worry that charter supporters use up much of their ammo to get a law passed….

    But then they don’t learn the urban charter school story…that, for the most part, only No Excuses charters are generating large gains using lottery-based studies.

    Instead, advocates confuse the messaging needed to win votes (“kids learn in different ways”) with the types of schools that benefit kids (and which generate the results that fuel increased support for choice).

  3. Melissa Westbrook says:

    First of all, the vote in Washington state has NOT been called. It is still quite close at 51-49%.

    Second, that statement that I=1240 is the “best” law comes from someone at a conservative think tank. It also comes from a charter association that is vested in having charters – not an outside, independent source. (And is also funded by Gates and Walton who, with just a few wealth sources funded the ENTIRE 1240 campaign. This was no grassroots campaign by any means.)

    A UW law professor has already said his examination of 1240 shows at least two Washington State constitutional law issues.

    This is no done deal by any means.

    We said no three times before to charters and it may end up being the 4th time might be the charm.

    • George Mitchell says:

      Note Melissa’s satisfaction at saying “no” to charters. That’s progress for you.

    • Collin Hitt says:


      You’re right about the official result. Washington still hasn’t certified their vote: 30 percent remains uncounted. The biggest chunk of uncounted votes comes from King county, where current tallies have 1240 down by 2. The entire portion of the uncounted vote statewide would need to reject 1240 by more than 4 points.

      And, to your other point, of course this law will be sued. That tactic is taught in Blocking 101.


      • Melissa Westbrook says:

        First, charters don’t work. That’s reason enough to say no.

        Second, our state has underfunded our schools for decades and our Supreme Court, just this summer, ordered our Legislature to fully fund our schools. That hasn’t even been worked out so to say our schools don’t work is to deny the facts.

        Third, I-1240 is a flawed initiative. Going to court is not stomping our foot at an election outcome. It’s defending our constitution as well as our initiative process.

        It also has the harshest conversion charter provision in the country that would allow ANY existing school to be taken over during the application process using a petition signed by EITHER teachers or parents. It’s just wrong and not good public policy.

        Lastly, this “Washington is a backwater for education” is nonsense. You don’t have the highest SAT scores in the country for the 9th straight year and be backward. You don’t have a Legislature passing Innovation Schools laws and a STEM-support law and be backward. You don’t have a district like Tacoma that created a high school within a high school for its at-risk students that has CLOSED the achievement gap and be backward. All this without charter law.

        Imagine if our existing schools were fully funded.

      • allen says:

        Oh, sure charters work. They just don’t work for those dependent on the district model and those who can’t think beyond the district model. For folks like you it isn’t so much that charters don’t work but that they’re a threat.

        Also Washington, like every other state in the union, hasn’t underfunded education. Rather the opposite and therein lies no small part of the problem of the district model – it’s a very nearly perfect vehicle for squandering public money.

        Where it becomes clear that education is *not* underfunded is in the lack of dollar figures that never seem to accompany the complaints of underfunding. It might not exactly support the narrative of the poor public education system struggling along on the occasional dry crust of bread to reveal that nationally we’re spending $10,615 per student per year in K-12 and, oh by the way, Washington’s not far off that ridiculous mark spending $9,452.

        By the way, you can’t have it both ways. If Tacoma high school’s doing such a peachy job while struggling with inadequate funding then the problem isn’t inadequate funding but replicating the person or very few people who are responsible for that Tacoma high school.

        And if Washington’s kids are showing up so well on SATs what possible reason could there be to increase funding? The purpose of the public education system is to do an adequate job of educating most kids and you’re asserting that Washington’s doing just that.

        Let’s try another possibility.

        Washington’s district public schools suck and a lot of parents and a lot on non-parents are getting tired of that fact and the fact that that failure to perform inevitably results in demands for more funding. The conclusion that’s being formed nationally – forty-one state’s worth – is that the current model of public education needs to thoroughly examined and new, very unwelcome variations on the classic theme have to be explored.

        Sorry blaming the kids, parents, TV, the Internet, drugs, lack of drugs, income and the direction of the prevailing winds hasn’t worked out for you.

  4. Matthew Ladner says:

    The Digest of Education Statistics shows that current (not total) inflation adjusted spending per pupil approximately doubled since 1970.

    Given the unspectacular trajectory of Washington’s NAEP scores we can infer that the student learning per tax dollar invested has been in a steady decline since 1970.

  5. George Mitchell says:

    Mellissa’s comments can be interpreted most charitably as part of a Washington teacher union “truth squad” operation, i.e., find stuff on the web about I-1240 and attempt to rebut it. They read more like an entry in The Onion.

    • Melissa Westbrook says:

      Sorry George, we were NOT the union campaign. It was pure grassroots, parents and community. It’s funny how everyone believes it is just the “union” against this but it isn’t and our endorsement list proves it (

      “Sorry blaming the kids, parents, TV, the Internet, drugs, lack of drugs, income and the direction of the prevailing winds hasn’t worked out for you.”

      I didn’t do that at all so I have no idea what you are talking about. It would be great if you actually read what people write.

      • George Mitchell says:

        Melissa is a “public education advocate ( who is praised and cited at the WEA website.

      • allen says:

        Oh, of course you blamed pretty much everything in sight for the failings of the public education system. If not in this comment section then in another one or in your approved-by-the-NEA column in the WaPo or somewhere else unions have enough clout to get you published. What else is there for you to do?

        It’s not like the old line about inadequate funding’s working any more. All I have to do is point out that the *average* per student spending in the U.S. is over $10,000 per year and the likes of you immediately falls back to complaints about poverty or some other tiresome excuse.

        By the way, forty-one states have charter school law now and many of them are considering or have passed measures to, you should pardon the expression, liberalize those laws.

        The collective thumbs of all you status quo devotees aren’t going to be enough to stanch that flow.

  6. Collin Hitt says:

    The Seattle Times is finally reporting the measure as having passed, with only 9 percent of the vote remaining uncounted.

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