In an effort to satisfy the state Supreme Court’s objections to charter schools, a revision of the 2012 voter-approved charter-school law adds oversight, taps lottery funds and says the privately run schools won’t be eligible to receive dollars from local school levies.
Washington lawmakers have passed a bill to salvage the state’s charter-school law, which the state Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional last September
The House passed the measure on Wednesday and, on Thursday, the Senate also did. Now the bill heads to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk.
The Wednesday vote in the House was the toughest hurdle for charter-school advocates, after a feverish campaign of lobbying and fundraising to keep charter schools alive in this state. Nine charters have opened under a law that voters narrowed approved in 2012, although one has since converted back into a private school.
The eight serve about 1,100 students in the Seattle, Highline, Kent, Tacoma and Spokane school districts.
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After lengthy debate, the House passed the bill on Wednesday evening by a vote of 58 to 39. Ten Democrats voted for it, including Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington. No Republicans voted against it.
The Senate vote on Thursday afternoon was 26-23.
“We’re very appreciative of the speaker for bringing the bill to the floor, and very appreciative of what was a very cordial and honest debate from both sides,” Washington State Charter Schools Association CEO Tom Franta said minutes after the House vote.
Rep. Chad Magendanz, R-Issaquah, ranking member of the House Education Committee, called it a “simple and elegant solution” to the Supreme Court’s ruling.
But attorney Paul Lawrence, who represented those who filed the lawsuit challenging charters, said switching to lottery funds is just an accounting trick.
“That doesn’t strike me as any different from paying it out of the general fund,” Lawrence said. “I don’t really see that that accomplishes a fix.”
The plaintiffs, which include the state’s largest teachers union, the League of Women Voters and El Centro de la Raza, haven’t decided whether they will sue again if the bill becomes law.
And Rep. Patty Kuderer, D-Clyde Hill, said she opposed the bill because as an attorney, she worried that it would not pass constitutional muster.
“I wholeheartedly believe that we’re going to be back here again,” she said. “This bill may solve the problem for today, but we’re not out of the woods.”
Charter supporters, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, have spent millions of dollars since September keeping the existing charters afloat and lobbying for a legislative fix, which appeared unlikely last month when the bill didn’t even get a vote in the House Education Committee.
But Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, filed an amended version late Tuesday, with a little more than a day left before the session is scheduled to end.
Springer said last week that he had spent “hours and hours” with charter-school advocates to figure out a way to draft legislation that would keep charters open.
“A majority of voters believe charter schools are a viable option and they ought to exist,” Springer said last week. “Our job in the Legislature is to make them constitutionally legal.”
Charters, which are legal in most other states, are publicly funded, but privately run, and seen as a way to foster innovation more quickly than in traditional public schools.
Washington’s 2012 charter law started slowly — allowing a maximum of 40 charters to open in the five years after it passed.
The bill headed to Inslee’s desk aims to make charters constitutional by funding them through lottery proceeds, which aren’t part of the state’s general fund.
Last September, the Supreme Court found the original charter-school law unconstitutional because charters do not have elected boards and therefore aren’t “common” schools, which means charters are not entitled to dollars from the state’s general fund.
The bill made a number of compromises to win votes — especially making charter schools ineligible to get any dollars from local property-tax levies.
Maggie Meyers, spokesman for the Washington State Charter Schools Association, said that compromise is a significant one, since it means less funding for charters. But she said supporters were willing to make it to keep the schools alive.
Another concession if the bill becomes law: Regular public schools would no longer be able to convert into charters — an easier compromise because school districts have shown little interest in doing that anyway.
The bill also would expand the state commission that approves new charter schools to include the chair of the State Board of Education and the Superintendent of Public Instruction (or someone they designate) to provide more oversight from elected officials.
Those concessions may have won votes, but the state’s teachers union still urged lawmakers to reject the bill outright, saying lawmakers should focus instead on complying with the state Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary order to fully fund K-12 education.
“We still oppose charter legislation at a time when the Legislature is being held in contempt of court for violating the constitutional rights of more than a million of our Washington public school students,” said Rich Wood, spokesman for the Washington Education Association.
Lawmakers agreed last month to set up a task force that will work out how the state will fulfill the McCleary order — a compromise bill that left many unsatisfied.
Six of the eight existing charters have stayed open by signing contracts with the small Mary Walker School District in Eastern Washington, operating as what’s known as “alternative learning experiences,” and two have decided to become home-school centers. All continue to receive some public funding.
The bill would not only help the existing charters stay open, but also clear the way for three originally approved to open this fall in Seattle and Walla Walla.