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Former Washington Democratic lawmaker wins award for charter school support


(The Center Square) – The The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has honored a former Washington state lawmaker with one of its annual Charter School Changemaker Awards for ongoing efforts to champion charter schools in the Evergreen State.

Eric Pettigrew, a Seattle Democrat, served in the state House of Representatives from 2003 to 2021. He was an advocate for the charter school movement long before nearly any other Democrat was on board.

“It definitely was against the grain at that point for sure,” Pettigrew told The Center Square. “It’s not how the rest of the caucus was thinking on charter schools back then.”

Pettigrew noted that he followed test scores for decades after coming to Washington in 1985, and wasn’t seeing a whole lot of improvement on the traditional public school side, especially for minority students.

“What I did start to see was improvement in other types of education and started looking at alternatives that allow us to adapt to the child’s learning rather than making the child adapt to what we consider to be the best learning,” he explained.

The former 37th Legislative District lawmaker backed several bills during his time in Olympia in advocating for the equal treatment of charter schools.

Pettigrew says he’s encouraged by recent progress related to Washington charter schools, including per-pupil funding secured in the state budget to help offset the lower levels students in charter schools receive because they don’t have access to local levy dollars.

Challenges remain, however.

Senate Bill 5809 to give charter schools permanent levey equalization funding did not pass the Legislature this session.

Despite the bill’s demise, Pettigrew remains optimistic about the future of charter schools in Washington.

“I was shocked after being away from the Legislature for a few years to see how much progress has been made,” he said.

He credits charter school students and their parents with changing the minds of many folks originally opposed to charter schools.

“Their voices are funneling up to the point it’s hard for anybody to turn away from that, especially when you back it up with numbers,” Pettigrew said.

Pettigrew points to a recent Washington State Board of Education report that show minority students in charter schools are outperforming their peers in public schools.

“I honestly believe every child has an education light switch,” he said. “There’s something that comes on, whether it’s in math or art or sports, and just the connection to an adult that says I believe you can do this. There’s a light switch that comes on and then look out!”

Pettigrew told a story about coaching Little League baseball years ago to make his point.

“I had a team of 8- and 9-year-olds, and I was working them hard with drills and exercise for the first several game and making sure they had the fundamentals down,” he said.

After eight lopsided losses to start the season, Pettigrew chewed out his team, causing several of his players to start crying.

He then modified his coaching style to make sure everyone on the team was having fun playing the game.

“We were doing relay races and pop fly contests and bunt contests, and we had so much fun,” Pettigrew said. “We won every single game after that.”

The coach learned a valuable lesson that season about the importance of getting kids to believe in themselves.

“They will direct their own learning,” Pettigrew noted, “and you’ll get out of the way.”

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools is set to honor Pettigrew and other winners at a special event on Capitol Hill on Wednesday at 11 a.m.