Charter Schools Rescue Bill Will Stand

Robin Lake: Leaders Could Help Set A Tone Of Moving Beyond Labels

Washington Charter School Rescue Bill Will Stand
Students in Washington state charter schools will be able to continue their studies this year without interruption after Governor Jay Inslee let stand SB 6194. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Governor Jay Inslee announced Friday he’ll let a bill reinstating charter schools become law without his signature.

It’s the first time a governor has done so since 1981, according to the Associated Press.

In a letter to Secretary of State Kim Wyman announcing his decision on SB 6194, Inslee wrote that his priorities in education include “public accountability of the taxpayer dollars spent,” and to have schools “that foster innovation and creativity for all our students…”

He added he wants to “ensure existing charter schools continue to serve the students now enrolled” and that he is “not interested in closing schools in a manner that disrupts the education of hundreds of students and their…families.”

Cheers From Democrats For Education Reform

“We’re thrilled it’s going to become law,” said Lisa Macfarlane, director of the Washington chapter of Democrats for Education Reform and board member of the Washington State Charter Schools Association, an advocacy group.

“The question from here is will we shift gears and think of these as another type of public school,” said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington-Bothell. Leaders could help set that tone of moving beyond labels, she said, by placing equal importance on charter school students.

“They’re all our kids,” Lake said.

Summit Public Schools issued a statement saying, “Thank you to our students and families in Seattle and Tacoma and our champions who have helped us fight for this public school option. You have all helped ensure Washington state will continue to offer this much-needed public school choice.” Summit operates two charter schools in Washington, Sierra in Seattle and Olympus in Tacoma.

Thanks to Students, Families, Staff and Community

“Our students, families, staff and community supporters have helped shape the culture of Destiny Middle School and made this new law possible,” wrote Bree Dusseault, Executive Director at Green Dot Public Schools Washington, in a press release issued after the governor’s decision. Green Dot operates Destiny Charter Middle School in Tacoma.

Dusseault added, “Together you ensured this public school option will be available to students in Tacoma and across the state. Our number one priority is our students’ education. Our focus is operating a great school, hiring a great staff for next year, and sharing the news about public options for students entering 6th and 7th grades.”

The state’s eight charter schools were beginning classes last fall when the state supreme court ruled them unconstitutional for using public funding without direct oversight from an elected board. The ruling came in response to a lawsuit by the League of Women Voters and the Washington Education Association which followed voter approval of a 2012 initiative for up to 40 charter schools in the state.

Senate Bill 6194 keeps the schools running by giving them access to a fund with lottery revenue, rather than the general fund used by traditional public schools. The lottery revenue comes from the Washington Opportunity Pathways Account, which is used for scholarships, work study grants and other education programs.

Although the initiative as passed allows local school districts to sponsor charters, in some districts officially hostile to the concept such as Seattle and Tacoma they have taken the other available route and were authorized by the state charter school commission.

In either case, the schools are overseen by unelected charter school boards, but if the school district authorizes them, like Spokane’s did, the local elected school board can end their contract and revoke funding.

A Warning From the Governor, As Well

In his letter to Wyman, Inslee adds a warning about the lack of direct spending oversight from elected bodies that could dovetail closely with the thrust of a possible second legal challenge to charter schools.

“At its foundation, our public school system relies upon locally elected school boards to oversee the expenditures of taxpayer money. This bill provides an option for similar oversight, but would ultimately allow unelected boards to make decisions about how to spend public money. I can think of no other situation where the legislature or the people would condone that, especially when we are fighting to see the needs of almost one million children in our public schools.”

Ann Murphy, president of the Washington League of Women Voters, said lawmakers’ focus needs to be on funding all schools, as required by the McCleary decision. “We hope they will be as forthcoming in wanting to deal with that,” she said.

Addressing the governor’s concerns on public oversight, MacFarlane said there are different definitions of accountability.

Accountability Is About Student Performance

“The ultimate form of accountability is how students are doing,” Macfarlane said.

Several charter schools have said their students are making progress faster than the national average in reading and math, despite beginning the school year below grade level.

Murphy said the League of Women Voters shared the governor’s concern about public oversight and accountability. The organization is not currently planning to challenge the law again but is “keeping options open,” she said.

In The McCleary case, the state supreme court ruled in 2012 that Washington is failing its paramount constitutional duty to fully fund basic education. Lawmakers have yet to decide how to supply the required state funds, which are estimated to be about $3.5 billion more per biennium.

Strong Support For Charter Schools From Employers

The Senate bill was sponsored by Sen. Steve Litzow (R-41) plus a dozen Republicans and three Democrats. It passed early in the 2016 session and was strongly supported by employers, and others.

After stalling in the House, it gained passage there in a bipartisan vote that included 10 Democratic supporters.

Amendments to SB 6194 included the removal of a provision that would have let traditional public schools be converted into charters, and the addition of one preventing charters from using local levy funds. The measure also specifies that when enrollment capacity is met, priority goes to siblings of current students and those considered “at-risk,” such as low-income students, before filling other openings with a lottery.

Up to 40 charter schools can be created in Washington within the next five years.

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