Gov. Jay Inslee announced Friday that he will allow a bill aimed at saving charter schools to become law without his signature, an option not exercised by a Washington governor in 35 years.
Caught between well-funded advocates trying to save charter schools and charter opponents urging a veto, including the state’s largest teachers union, Gov. Jay Inslee is choosing to do nothing.
In a letter to Secretary of State Kim Wyman released Friday afternoon, Inslee said he will allow Senate Bill 6194 to become law without his signature, rather than vetoing it or signing it. In the letter, he expressed concerns that the unelected boards of charters would still be allowed to make decisions about how to spend public money.
“Despite my deep reservations about the weakness of the taxpayer accountability provisions, I will not close schools,” Inslee wrote.
It’s the first time in 35 years that a Washington governor has allowed a bill to become law without a signature.
“The good news is it will become law, and I’m pretty pleased about it,” said Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, who succeeded in jump-starting the stalled bill, which seeks to overcome a Washington Supreme Court ruling that the state’s 2012 charter law is unconstitutional.
Springer said Inslee probably took the best path he could, politically, with most Democrats against the bill, along with many parents and the powerful teachers union.
Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, one of the co-sponsors of the bill, said he was disappointed Inslee didn’t sign it.
“(Inslee’s) been very upfront that he’s not a fan of charter schools,” said Litzow, who chairs the Senate’s Early Learning & K-12 Education Committee. “He has been very much on the sidelines throughout this entire process.”
Opponents are considering their legal options, but many observers believe another lawsuit is likely.
“I mean, if I were them, I’d be planning my lawsuit,” said Springer.
Last September, the Supreme Court ruling threw charter schools into limbo just a few weeks after most had opened. The justices found this state’s charters were unconstitutional because, under the law passed by voters, the schools don’t have public oversight from elected boards and therefore are ineligible fortax money from the state’s general fund.
Inslee opposed charter schools during his 2012 campaign, arguing that they would pull money away from public schools. The Washington Education Association endorsed him then and endorsed him for re-election two weeks ago.
“Our opposition to this charter-school legislation has not changed,” said union spokesman Rich Wood. “The governor knows our position and it’s been clear for a long time.”
The union and many Democrats have argued that the Legislature’s first priority should be complying with the state Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary order to fully fund K-12 education.
The Seattle School Board echoed those concerns when it voted last month to oppose the charter-school legislation.
“I am most offended by a number of state legislators who have not seen fit to pass McCleary legislation, and I am most distressed by the actions of the OSPI in putting together a scheme to keep these charter schools in business,” said School Board member Leslie Harris, referring to the state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
School Board President Betty Patu called charter schools “a distraction” in addressing the needs of public schools.
The new legislation will fund charter schools with proceeds from the state lottery, which go into an account that’s separate from the general fund.
Charters are publicly funded, privately run schools that are legal in most states.
Nine charters have opened since the passage of the 2012 law, although one has since converted back into a private school. Three more are to open this fall. The existing eight serve about 1,100 students in the Seattle, Highline, Kent, Tacoma and Spokane school districts.
For many charter-school parents, Inslee’s announcement came as a relief after months of rallies, letters and phone calls.
“It’s been such a difficult climate, because this is an issue that I think has become polarizing,” said Shirline Wilson, whose son attends Rainier Prep in the Highline School District south of Seattle. “I’m just thrilled that our fight is over.”
Melissa Pailthorp, the mother of a ninth-grade student at Summit Sierra in Seattle’s International District, said the lobbying efforts were worth it. “All of us had to ask ourselves, ‘Does this make sense for our kids?’ ” Pailthorp said. “Our kids have learned a lot from this. They have all said they feel strongly about staying in their school. Why would we deny them that? We knew we were gambling, but that it would be well worth it.”
In addition to changing charter schools’ funding source, the legislation expands the membership of the state commission responsible for deciding which charter schools can open. That commission now will include the chair of the State Board of Education and the Superintendent of Public Instruction (or others they may designate) to provide more oversight from elected officials.
And charter schools will not be able to receive any dollars from local property-tax levies.
Charter advocates say that was a big concession because it means charters won’t get as much money as other public schools.
The Washington Education Association, the League of Women Voters and El Centro de la Raza are among the plaintiffs that challenged the original law.
Their attorney, Paul Lawrence, told The Seattle Times last month that using lottery funds rather than the state’s general fund to support charters is just an accounting trick that doesn’t solve the constitutional problem.
But Tom Franta, leader of the Washington State Charter Schools Association, an advocacy group, said the fix should stand up in court.
“It’s something we’re expecting and that we believe we’re very much prepared for,” Franta said. “We’re very confident that this bill and this law does address the issues that were raised by the Supreme Court.”
The last governor to allow a bill to become law without his or her signature was John Spellman in 1981, according to Dave Ammons of the state Secretary of State’s Office. Spellman used the technique twice that year, Ammons said, on bills related to school busing and labor relations in the state’s ferry system.
Charter supporters, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, have spent millions of dollars since September keeping the existing charters afloat and lobbying the Legislature.
Advocates cleared their biggest hurdle — getting the bill passed by the House, where Democrats hold a slim majority — with unanimous support from the Republicans and the help of 10 Democrats, including Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington.
The Republican-controlled Senate voted 26-23 in favor, sending the bill to Inslee’s desk, where it stayed while the Legislature extended its regular session to reach a deal updating the state’s two-year budget.
In 2012, voters narrowly approved the charter-school initiative, with 50.7 percent in favor. Many Democrats who supported the legislation hail from districts that approved charter schools by a greater margin.
Sen. Mark Mullet, one of two Democrats in that chamber to vote for the bill, said the governor’s signature wasn’t important to him. But if the governor had vetoed the bill, “I would be beyond upset,” said Mullet, whose Issaquah-area district voters supported the initiative back in 2012 with 53 percent.
In a statement, Bill Bryant, a Republican challenging Inslee for governor, said Inslee’s action “reveals his total inability to lead” and disinterest in education issues.
While Inslee acknowledged intense feelings both for and against the bill, he said Friday evening, shortly after his letter to the secretary of state was released, that he didn’t get a hard push from Democrats or the state’s teachers unions to veto it.
“But bottom line, I did not want to close schools,” he said. “I did not want to cause disruption to students who are now in these existing schools.”