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Wash. School Districts Could Oversee Endangered Charters Under Spokane Lawmakers' Plan

Kyle Stokes
Charter school supporters hold a rally at Summit Sierra charter school in Seattle's International District.

Two Spokane state senators have floated a plan they hope will preserve charter schools in Washington state, which currently face an uncertain future after the state Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional last fall.

Ahead of the legislative session that begins next week, Democrat Andy Billig and Republican Michael Baumgartner filed a bill that would allow any local school board to continue to create and oversee charter schools within its district's boundaries.

School boards had the power to authorize charters before the ruling; it's part of the law the state Supreme Court struck down. But Billig said the bill would give districts more control over charters' operations in a way that addresses the court's biggest objection: that charters aren't overseen by elected boards.

It's not clear whether the bill would be enough to save existing charter schools in districts like Seattle and Tacoma, where the school board members have taken vocal anti-charter stances.

But Billig said he hopes the new arrangement might prompt skeptical districts to rethink their stance. Unlike before, district school boards would be able to decide how much freedom to give a charter school in staffing, curriculum and budget-making decisions. Board members could also dictate charter schools' enrollment levels and targets.

Another big difference from before: school board members would be able to shut down a charter school for any reason, so long as they give the charter school a year's notice. Under the now-unconstitutional law, authorizers could only revoke a charter with cause or when its contract came up for renewal every few years.

"That is quite a bit of authority that did not exist before, but would need to exist if these schools are going to be considered constitutional because they're accountable to the local school board," Billig said.

Until the state Supreme Court's Sept. 4 ruling, charter schools operated as public schools in Washington state. They were managed by non-profit groups, not school districts, and were governed by appointed boards. Charter schools were accountable to authorizers — either a local school board or a state commission — which would vet charter applications and monitor schools' academic and financial performance.

In the wake of the ruling, all of Washington's nine charter schools remain open. Seattle's First Place Scholars reverted to being a private school. Most of the rest have continued to receive public funding by becoming a sort of alternative learning contractor — a temporary fix that charter opponents say violates the spirit of the court's ruling.

With the emergence of Billig and Baumgartner's bill, charter opponents have renewed their objections, saying the state cannot divert funding to another type of public school while under Supreme Court sanction for failing to address school district's over-reliance on local property taxes to make up for inadequate state funding levels. Billig said he also believes the legislature must "fully fund education" this session.

But one pro-charter group hoped the legislature would go further than Billig and Baumgartner's bill.

Cynara Lilly, a spokeswoman for an advocacy offshoot of the Washington State Charter Schools Association, called Billig's bill a "great first effort." But she wants lawmakers to create a means for charters to open up even in districts where school boards aren't interested.

"By creating a situation that doesn't have a statewide authorizer ... you essentially create a world where some parents have more choice and opportunity than others in Washington state. That's not what the voters wanted," she said.

Lilly expected other lawmakers to come forward with proposals.

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.