Editorial: Lawmakers failed to fix charter schools

By The Herald Editorial Board

Last week’s filing of a lawsuit that challenges the Legislature’s attempt earlier this year to make charter schools fit under the state constitution, was quickly met with attacks from charter school supporters and a few newspaper editorial boards asserting that once again teachers were attempting to undercut charter schools and were distracting lawmakers’ attention from fixing the public school funding mess.

But the lawsuit and those filing it — who include the Washington Education Association, the state League of Women Voters, El Centro de la Raza, Boeing Machinists, the Washington State Labor Council and other labor groups — aren’t to blame.

The fault lies with lawmakers who took an easy path in attempting to correct the charter school system’s funding after the initiative that authorized charter schools was found unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court in 2015. The court ruled that the charter school system, overseen by an appointed state commission, wasn’t eligible for taxpayer-supported state funding that is dedicated to “common” or public schools, because voters had no direct representation or oversight of schools in their community.

The ruling threatened about nine schools that had been charted in the state — none of them in Snohomish County — and about 1,200 students.

The Legislature this spring considered at least two remedies to address the court’s ruling. One would have placed charter schools under the direction of the school districts where they are located, satisfying the state high court’s requirement for voter representation.

A second sought to fund the schools not through the state’s general fund but through the Opportunity Pathways Account, which is supported through state lottery sales. The fund, however, already is used to support $348 million in scholarships and loan repayment assistance. The bill, which Gov. Jay Inslee allowed to become law without his signature, diverts $18 million each year for support of charter schools, but then replenishes the scholarship account with $18 million from the general fund.

The legislation appears to secure charter schools funding from a source outside of the general fund, but then takes the same amount, money that is due children in public schools, out of the general fund to make the scholarship fund whole. The lawsuit calls it a “shell game.”

Lawmakers who supported the legislation and now critics of the WEA lawsuit are only pretending that taxpayer money isn’t still supporting charter schools without providing the voter representation that the Supreme Court required.

There’s mixed evidence regarding charter schools’ effectiveness. Two reports in 2009 and 2013 by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, found a range of benefits for children enrolled in charter schools. Both reports found that most students performed at a level equivalent to public schools, but there were findings of better outcomes for some low-income minority students, particularly in learning English as a second language.

The voters, albeit by less than 51 percent, said they wanted a system of charter schools in the state. The state Supreme Court has offered clear direction to lawmakers about the oversight of those schools.

The lawsuit’s critics have claimed the challenge will potentially disrupt the education of children now in charter schools and will divert the attention of the Legislature from completing its work to amply and equitably fund basic public education and fix an over-reliance on local school levies.

The lawsuit and those who brought it aren’t to blame. That’s all on a Legislature that looked for an easy fix.

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