With 10 Democrats joining the minority of 48 Republicans, the Washington State House of Representatives voted 58 to 39 Wednesday night to pass a bill keeping charter schools open. The bill now goes back to the Senate where an earlier version originated and passage is expected.
Rep. Chris Hurst (D-31) said he had had a change of heart, describing how he struggled as a student and “was kind of a throw-away kid.” He voted in favor of the bill, saying he felt he had a responsibility to ensure students who don’t do well under traditional public schools aren’t falling through the cracks.
“This is not a diminishment of my commitment to public education, it’s the opposite,” Hurst said.
Driving back from Olympia after the hours-long floor debate culminating in a quick vote and adjournment, Rep Tana Senn (D-41), who voted in favor of the bill, told Lens, “I was definitely torn. I’m frustrated we haven’t dealt with McCleary and fully funding our public schools. But we’re losing some kids” in traditional public schools, and charters are another way to reach them and help increase their odds of academic success, Senn said.
Good News For Major Employers
The news from the House floor Thursday night was hailed by an organization representing major Washington employers.
“We think charter schools are a terrific option for some kids, and the current charters are doing a great job of helping kids from traditionally underserved families get the skills they need to succeed in college and life,” said President Steve Mullin of the Washington Roundtable, an advocacy group of business executives in the state.
Currently, about 78 percent of Washington students graduate high school, compared to 82 percent nationally. The state ranks 38th out of 50 states on high school graduation rates. The rate for low-income and minority students in Washington is lower.
And there are about 25,000 job openings – projected to reach 50,000 by 2018 – that are unfilled because employers can’t find local candidates with enough education and training.
Senate Bill 6194, sponsored in that chamber by Sen. Steve Litzow (R-41) along with three Democrats and a dozen Republicans, is a response to last fall’s Washington State Supreme Court ruling that the charter schools approved by a 2012 initiative were unconstitutional.
The court majority ruled that since the charter schools were controlled by appointed board members of a non-profit, rather than elected school board members, they could not be considered “common schools” that are eligible for public funding.
The Senate’s bill addresses this issue by giving charter schools funds from lottery revenue, rather than from the general fund used by public school districts.
The Republican-controlled Senate passed the bill 27 to 20 in January, but it was never brought up for a vote in the House Education Committee. But as behind-the-scenes lobbying for its consideration intensified, a House procedural motion brought it to the floor there, and after discussing the bill among their respective caucuses Wednesday, Democrats and Republicans voted on a few dozen amendments and approved eight.
Lengthy Floor Debate
A lengthy and sometimes emotional floor debate ensued into Wednesday evening, then a call for the vote, which was automatically tallied in half a minute.
The bill provides $18 million for charter schools from the Washington Opportunity Pathways Account, which consists of lottery revenue and funds programs such as early learning and college scholarships. Those funds will be replaced with $18 million from the general fund. The measure also specifies that charter schools cannot receive money from local school levies.
The court case was filed by the League of Women Voters and the Washington Education Association, a teachers’ union. A spokesperson for the WEA, Linda Mullen, said their position was unchanged by tonight’s vote and amendments.
“The WEA has been very consistent in believing that the legislature should focus on funding McCleary, and a million students should be a priority over a handful,” Mullen said.
The state is under a constitutional obligation to fully fund public education and is not meeting that requirement, according to the supreme court’s 2012 McCleary decision. Many legislators cited the case as a reason to vote against the bill.
Charter Schools Embody ‘Our Ability To Innovate’
But some lawmakers, like Rep. Kevin Parker (R-6) said they didn’t see it as an either-or situation. “The strength of our education system will be our ability to innovate,” Parker said.
A central disagreement between supporters and opponents of the bill has been the definition of “public school.” While supporters say the state’s charter schools are public because they are open to any student and tuition-free, opponents say they’re only helping a small number of students and lack public oversight.
Rep. Mike Sells (D-38) said, “There’s no transparency to how this will operate.”
Sells added, “I believe we can fix charter schools (but) the idea was that parents and teachers would be running these schools, the reality with this bill is they are not.”
The eight charter schools currently open in Washington are run by appointed non-profit boards, under the oversight of a statewide commission. They are required to be secular.
Once capacity has been reached, admissions are decided by a lottery, which gives more weight to at-risk applicants such as low-income or special education students. It also prioritizes siblings of current students.
The bill adds the Superintendent of Public Instruction to the commission overseeing the state’s charters, along with the Chair of the State Board of Education.
Independent Audits Prescribed In House Amendment
One of the amendments approved by the house before the vote requires the schools to undergo independent audits after their first two years of operation, and every three years after that. The bill was also amended under Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self’s (D-21) recommendation to require charter school board and state commission members to file public disclosures of their finances and reveal conflicts of interest.
Another Legal Challenge Feared
But many lawmakers who opposed the bill worried that the charter school law was still vulnerable to a challenge in court. Rep. Patty Kuderer (D-48) called it “not just a possibility but a probability” that the law would be legally challenged again, and suggested charter schools in Washington would require a constitutional amendment.
“This bill may save the problem for today, but we’re not out of the woods,” Kuderer said. “And families are going to have to live with this uncertainty.”
The bill allows for up to 40 charter schools throughout the state. The bill says the eight charter schools currently open will not receive state funding to compensate for the revenue lost while waiting for the legislature to address the court decision.
House Democrats who voted yes in addition to Hurst and Senn were Rep. Judy Clibborn (D-41), Rep. Ruth Kagi (D-32), Rep. Kristine Lytton (D-40), Rep. Jeff Morris (D-40th), Rep. Eric Pettigrew (D-37th), Rep. David Sawyer (D-29th), Rep. Pat Sullivan (D-47th), and Rep. Larry Springer (D-45th).