Charter school advocates declared victory Thursday as the state Legislature approved a plan to keep the privately run, publicly funded schools open in Washington.
A bill that would change the way charter schools are funded cleared the state Senate on Thursday on a 26-23 vote, with a majority of senators agreeing with changes made Wednesday in the state House.
The measure now heads to the desk of Gov. Jay Inslee.
The bill, Senate Bill 6194, aims to address the state Supreme Court’s ruling in September that declared Washington’s system of charter schools unconstitutional.
In their decision, a majority of court justices said charter schools shouldn’t receive state funding that is set aside for traditional public schools, primarily because they are run by appointed board members, rather than board members who are publicly elected.
The future of the state’s eight charter schools has been in doubt since the court’s ruling. Since then, parents, students and charter supporters have lobbied lawmakers in Olympia to take steps to save the schools, three of which are in Tacoma.
The measure that passed Thursday would fund charter schools using state lottery revenues, instead of the state general fund.
The bill amends Initiative 1240, which Washington voters approved in 2012 to authorize a system of charter schools. About 1,100 students now attend Washington’s charter schools, most of which opened in August.
“We are thankful to legislators in both houses and on both sides of the aisle who have passed a long-term solution for public charter schools,” said Tom Franta, CEO of the Washington Charter Schools Association, in a statement Thursday. “This will have positive implications not just for these 1,100 students but for countless Washington families in the future.”
Yet most Senate Democrats voted against the legislation, saying it wouldn’t solve the primary constitutional problem with charter schools: That they aren’t run by a publicly elected school board.
Several Democrats predicted the Supreme Court would strike down charter schools again if opponents launch another legal challenge.
“It does nothing about the issue of local control,” said Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, of the bill that passed Thursday. “Instead, it tries to pretend that the only thing that’s going on here is the money was coming out of the wrong account, and that’s all we need to do to fix it.”
Among the 23 Senate Democrats, only Sen. Steve Hobbs of Lake Stevens and Mark Mullet of Issaquah voted in favor of the measure.
On the Republican side, Sen. Brian Dansel of Republic and Sen. Kirk Pearson of Monroe broke with their party to oppose the bill. All other Republicans supported it.
State Sen. Randi Becker, R-Eatonville, said working to allow charter schools to remain open upholds the will of Washington voters.
She said many students thrive at charter schools who struggle in traditional public schools.
“I can’t imagine why we can’t realize that all of our kids don’t fit in one box,” Becker said.
The plan approved Thursday changes several pieces of the voter-approved initiative, including making charter schools ineligible to receive local levy funding. Originally, I-1240 had allowed charters to take a share of property tax levies passed by local school districts.
Another change would eliminate the ability for traditional public schools to convert to charter schools.
The House and Senate also struck compromises that aim to boost public oversight of charters. Senate Bill 6194 would require independent performance audits of the schools, as well as require charter school board members to report their personal finances and potential conflicts of interest to the state Public Disclosure Commission.
Additionally, the bill requires the state charter school commission to include representatives from the Office of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction and the State Board of Education.