Washington Senate passes charter school law fix, 26-23

SEATTLE — The Washington Senate voted Thursday to approve a fix to the state charter school law that lawmakers hope will pull the alternative public schools out of constitutional trouble.

The bill was passed in the House on Wednesday night and in the Senate on Thursday afternoon. It now heads to the governor’s desk.

It was designed to answer a September ruling by the Washington Supreme Court that the charter school law adopted by voters in 2012 is unconstitutional. The court took issue with the way the schools were funded and managed.

State lottery money would be used to support charter schools under this proposal, instead of dollars from the general fund. But the legislation does not require elected school boards to manage them.

Tom Franta, CEO of the nonprofit Washington State Charter Schools Association, said he believes the bill addresses all the constitutional questions because it makes clear that charter schools are no longer common schools as the state Constitution labels Washington’s more traditional public schools.

That also means charter schools are not eligible for money from local levies.

Franta’s organization, which has provided both support and advocacy for the new schools, said another charter school lawsuit was hinted at repeatedly during legislative debate this week.

“We’re going to be ready for it. And are confident the result will be in our favor,” Franta said of the next lawsuit.

The senators had a long, passionate debate on the state’s educational responsibilities before the bill passed on a vote of 26-23, with most Republicans voting yes and most Democrats voting no.

Much of the debate centered on whether it was acceptable for the Legislature to find the money to keep eight charter schools open while not fulfilling the promise to the other 1 million school children in the state to fully pay for their schools.

There were many references to the other school lawsuit hanging over the Legislature since January 2012, the Supreme Court’s co-called McCleary decision on school funding.

Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, said the choice shouldn’t be save the charter schools or fully fund K-12 schools across the state. “To me, the right answer is C, all of the above. We have to do both,” said Litzow, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

Earlier in the legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill making a plan to finish in 2017 the work the Supreme Court ordered in the McCleary decision.

Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, said she was concerned that this bill would not take the children who attend charter schools out of legal limbo, because it doesn’t answer the court’s demand for an elected school board.

She said the bill isn’t good for charter schools and it doesn’t answer the bigger needs at all the state’s public schools, including smaller classes, more individual attention. “This is not a good bill for our children,” McAuliffe said.

Gov. Jay Inslee’s office would not say whether he will sign the charter school bill, but he seemed to speak in favor earlier this week.

“My principles are three: I don’t want to shut down schools, I want to see more innovation, and I want to see accountability to the citizens. So I hope all of those things can be done.”

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