Charter school fix temporary at best

Let’s start here: Yes, Washington state’s Legislature should find a solution that preserves the charter school system that voters approved in 2012.

But the solution now under consideration by lawmakers places too much faith in the typical Olympic legislative legerdemain that moves money from one account to the other.

The opportunity for groups to establish charter schools in their communities was the will of the voters, although it wasn’t an overwhelming victory; Initiative 1240 passed with 50.7 percent approval.

And we’ll repeat what we’ve shared previously from a guest commentary last year by Lew Moore, president of the Washington Research Council: The Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, in two national reports in 2009 and 2013, found a range of outcomes for students. Both reports showed that some students performed better in charter schools; some did worse; but most performed at a level equivalent to public school students. Where charter schools stood out in the studies was in better outcomes for some low-income minority students and those learning English as a second language as compared to their peers in traditional public schools.

A plan to save the schools, which currently number nine in the state and serve about 1,300 students, passed the Senate last week, but now is waiting for action in the House Education Committee, although lawmakers say the issue isn’t dead.

Legislators are having to find a method to keep the charter schools open that will satisfy a state Supreme Court ruling last year that found that because the schools are administered by an appointed board, rather than one elected by a community’s voters, they aren’t eligible for the state funding that goes to “common schools,” otherwise known as public schools.

The legislation, Senate Bill 6194, attempts to get around the issue by funding the schools, not through the state’s taxpayer-supported general fund, but through the Opportunity Pathways Account, which is fed by revenue from state lottery sales. During the last fiscal year, the account provided more than $348 million in scholarships and student loan repayment assistance. The bill would divert $18 million from the account to support the charter schools program but would then replenish the lost scholarship money with $18 million from the general fund.

The bill’s supporters must be counting on the Supreme Court to look the other way as taxpayer money goes in one door and out the other.

Lawmakers had another option they might have given more consideration, legislation proposed earlier in the session that would have cleared the way for general fund support of charter schools by requiring that the schools be held accountable by local school district boards who are elected by voters, thereby satisfying the Supreme Court decision. It got a Senate committee hearing but went no further.

With the regular session drawing to a close March 10, it’s unlikely that there’s time or will to consider anything other than the bill now before the House. In the interest of keeping the existing charter schools open, the legislation should pass, but with the understanding that the Supreme Court is likely to send the issue back to lawmakers to find a more honest solution next year at the same time the Legislature attempts to devise a final fix for public schools funding.

Doing so only continues the uncertainty for charter school students, but as former public school students, they must be used to that by now.

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