Politics & Government

State Senate votes to continue charter schools

Washington state senators stand to indicate their votes on an amendment Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016, at the Capitol in Olympia. The Senate passed a bill that seeks a legal fix to the state's charter schools in light of a state Supreme Court ruling that found the system unconstitutional.
Washington state senators stand to indicate their votes on an amendment Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016, at the Capitol in Olympia. The Senate passed a bill that seeks a legal fix to the state's charter schools in light of a state Supreme Court ruling that found the system unconstitutional. AP

The state Senate approved a measure Wednesday that aims to keep Washington’s charter schools open, despite a September court ruling that declared them unconstitutional.

The proposal, Senate Bill 6194, would pay for charter schools through state lottery revenues, instead of through tax revenues that feed the state’s general fund.

The bill’s supporters said changing the funding source for the schools — which are publicly funded, but privately managed — would resolve problems that caused the state Supreme Court to strike down Washington’s charter school law in 2015.

But the bill’s opponents said it wouldn’t address the biggest problem raised by the court: that charter schools aren’t run by publicly elected boards, but by boards that are appointed.

Because of that issue, the court said, charter schools don’t qualify as common schools under the state constitution and therefore can’t be funded the same way as other public schools.

Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island and the sponsor of the legislation, said the bill agrees with the court’s ruling and therefore seeks to classify charter schools as “uncommon schools” that don’t rely on constitutionally protected funds.

Litzow said charter schools are particularly useful in helping educate minority students and those who come from low-income families, and that those families deserve to have additional choices beyond what’s offered by the traditional public school system.

“We have great schools. We have some great teachers,” Litzow said. “But over the last 25 years, we know it doesn’t work for everyone.”

The bill passed the Senate on a 27-20 vote, with most of the chamber’s Democrats opposing it.

Charter school proponents praised the bill’s passage Wednesday, saying that the schools provide many students with the individualized attention they need to succeed. Washington voters approved a system of charter schools by passing Initiative 1240 in 2012.

“These are the disenfranchised students in the regular school system,” said Thelma Jackson, board chairwoman of SOAR Academy, one of Tacoma’s three charters. She said that only six months into the school year, first-graders and kindergartners at SOAR are seeing “tremendous growth.”

Yet Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, called the bill the Senate passed Tuesday “a false promise” to help charter school students, and said it will merely set up another court challenge over the schools’ constitutionality.

In particular, Billig said, the bill doesn’t solve the problem of charter schools being privately run, despite receiving public funding. He predicted the court would strike it down, should it become law.

Several Democrats said the Legislature should instead focus on fully funding the state’s public schools system, which serves about 1 million students. The state is now in contempt of court over its failure to deliver a plan to fully fund schools by 2018, as the state Supreme Court has ordered in the McCleary case.

“I’m just frustrated that we can spend all this time and passion talking about what we want to do for a handful of schools, when I am frustrated that we do not do the job we’re supposed to do for all the schools in the state,” said state Sen. Dean Takko, D-Longview.

Legislators estimated about 1,200 students attend the state’s eight charter schools, three of which are in Tacoma. One in Seattle converted to a private school after the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Litzow said that allowing the state’s current charter schools to remain open, plus allowing only 40 schools over the next five years, won’t compromise the Legislature’s ability to address its other school funding obligations. “We can do more than one thing,” he said.

The state operates more than 2,300 public schools that aren’t charters.

The bill now heads to the state House, which has a slim Democratic majority. Some leaders there have expressed concerns that charter schools need to be operated under the umbrella of public school districts for them to be constitutional.

Jackson, the board chairwoman at SOAR Academy, said lawmakers should at least try to save charter schools for now, which would give the schools additional time to prove how well they work for students.

She said parents always retain the option of enrolling their children in a regular public school.

“If charter schools don’t prevail or deliver, they’ll be empty in time,” Jackson said. “They’ll be empty because no one will come back.”

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1

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