John Braun: Give Washington parents the right to choose how their children are educated


A dozen years ago, the state Supreme Court declared our state's approach to funding K-12 education had failed.

Some legislators wanted to respond to the historic ruling in McCleary v. Washington solely by throwing billions more in taxpayer dollars at the situation. That would have been the easy way, but not the best way.

The Republican-led Senate instead recognized an opportunity to deal with systemic flaws that put many students at a disadvantage. Those infirmities were limiting educational opportunities, especially for children in school districts with lower property values.

It took years of work, but our efforts to reform the system while increasing K-12 funding prevailed.

Unfortunately, things have gone backwards since then. The reasons include Olympia falling back under one-party rule by Democrats and returning to policies that leave rural and poor districts behind, followed by the Democrats’ classroom closures that lasted far too long during the pandemic.

A recent assessment put it this way: "student attendance, academic performance and enrollment in college and career training are lower than at any time in recent memory — even as the state is spending more (on education) than ever."

Underscoring that are recent findings from the Annie E. Casey Foundation that 72% of Washington eighth-graders are not proficient in math.

This Baltimore-based foundation isn’t known for being conservative, so Democrats have no real reason to be critical. But as happens every time a study shows Washington students are lagging, our state superintendent of public instruction got defensive and reacted by questioning the methodology.

This is the same education chief who scolded reporters in 2023 for daring to use the term “learning loss.” The non-partisan position of the Office of the Superintendent for Public Instruction (OSPI) is enshrined in our state constitution, so the Legislature can’t do away with it — but voters should definitely look at replacing Chris Reykdal in November with someone who can be more forthright with parents. Reykdal is a former Democratic legislator, and his partisan bias seems to be clouding his judgment.

Once again, some think the only possible solution to sinking test scores and other K-12 issues is to shovel more taxpayer dollars into a system that clearly leans more toward the wishes of adults — the public-sector education unions — than toward the needs of children.


We have an historic opportunity to reboot Washington's K-12 system so it expands the educational options available to our students, gives parents a greater role in guiding their children's learning, and respects and rewards educators who just want to teach, free from the ideological agendas being pushed on them and our children.

Legislators can take a big step toward that by adding Washington to the growing list of states where universal school choice is allowed.

That means government allocates the money to pay for a child's basic education, but the money follows the student.

The list of education options may include private schools, if that's what the parents decide is the best fit for their child's needs.

A policy put on the table by Republicans for the 2023-24 legislative term would have offered school choice for up to 94,100 students.

Those children would have needed to meet certain criteria, such as being disabled, or living in poverty, or being stuck in what Washington law defines as persistently lowest-achieving schools.

Knowing how the education unions have a strong grip on our Democratic colleagues, it's a wonder that HB 1615 actually received a committee hearing before dying during our 2023 session.

But there is no ignoring how the number of Washington students enrolled in private school increased by 26% between the 2019-20 school year and the 2022-23 school year — the front and back ends of the pandemic.

That percentage is more than triple the national average. Only two states saw a bigger jump. Meanwhile, our state's population of homeschooled students rose 43%.

To quote a news report, those numbers "are an indication parents are continuing to rethink their kids’ school options, even after the pandemic."

Under Washington's constitution, the paramount duty of state government is to make ample provision for the education of the state's children.

If parents are rethinking their children's school options, legislators have a constitutional duty to meet those parents where they are, and provide accordingly.

Just months after the McCleary ruling, Washington voters approved the creation of public charter schools. Because that was disruptive, just like school choice would be, it can serve as an example now.

Ahead of the vote on Initiative 1240, the arguments offered by supporters included how public charters are designed to find solutions to problems that affect chronically underperforming schools, and also to better serve at-risk students who most need help.

Opponents countered by claiming charters were an "unproven, risky gamble."

Fast forward to April of this year, which marked the 10th anniversary of the first charter schools under the I-1240 law.

The State Board of Education released its latest annual report on charters. Once again, it found charter students in Washington are performing similar to or better than academically, economically and ethnically similar students attending traditional public schools.

The board's research director also noted how Washington charter students improved in English and math at a statistically and meaningfully higher level.

That hardly sounds like the "risky gamble" opponents predicted.

Universal school choice, like charters, would give parents in our state a low- or no-barrier option to traditional public schools. 

Consumers like having more choices, not fewer. Democrats from Jay Inslee on down certainly go on and on about the right to choose.

Besides, Attorney General Bob Ferguson sent his children to private school. A poor family in our state ought to have the same opportunity, through an educational service account, or an education "backpack," or a voucher, or whatever you want to call the funding mechanism.

On top of all that, we all know a free marketplace and competition make for better products and services. A public school that performs as parents expect should have no fear of losing students to a private school.

However, the lack of interest from Democrats in allowing school choice suggests they aren't so confident. Rather than uphold the state's paramount duty, they focus on protecting the near-monopoly their labor-union friends have on the delivery of K-12 education in our state.

In the meantime, there’s more reason for parents to be concerned, because academic fundamentals like reading, writing and arithmetic seem to be taking a back seat to the promotion of a particular ideology.

A prime example of that is the law created by this year’s Senate Bill 5462, which calls for the promotion of “culturally and experientially representative learning opportunities” – as if that adequately substitutes for the hard skills Washington students will need to be successful when they get out into the real world.

One more thing: Initiative 2081, the new "parents' bill of rights" law that took effect June 6, says parents are the primary stakeholders in their children's upbringing.

It also declares that parental involvement is a significant factor in student achievement.

School choice is a logical extension of the pro-parent, pro-child policy in I-2081. It won't be easy to get Democrats to agree, but it's how we make the lives of our children better.


Sen. John Braun of Centralia serves the 20th Legislative District, which spans parts of four counties from Yelm to Vancouver. He became Senate Republican leader in 2020.