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'Toothpaste Back Into The Tube': Opponents Doubt Efforts To Save Wash. Charter Schools Will Work

Rachel La Corte
AP Photo
Students and other advocates of charter schools rally at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash., on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015.

A second legislative proposal to preserve Washington's charter schools emerged Thursday, with its authors promising to reconstitute even more of the system invalidated by the State Supreme Court than another bill filed earlier this week.

The proposal unveiled Thursday would restore the now-shuttered state charter commission that authorizes charter schools and gives back to local school districts the power to create charters in their own districts. The key change? Charters would draw funding from a state lottery account, not from general education dollars.

But opponents doubt that will be enough to satisfy the court, which ruled last fall that charter schools — publicly-funded but managed by non-profits, not school districts — were unconstitutional because they weren't subject to the authority of an elected school board. 

"Anyone who thinks you can put the toothpaste back into the tube and make the system of charter schools constitutional by simply renaming something is not in the reality of the Washington state constitution. It's just wrong," said Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle.

Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, disagrees. He joined several Republican and Democratic co-sponsors in filing the charter bill released Thursday.

Fain said the proposed change in charters' funding source would address the court's primary objection: that charter schools used funding earmarked for "common schools." The court ruled that charter schools are not "common schools," and therefore cannot receive general fund dollars.

That suggests a "simple fix," Fain said: find a funding source for charters that contains no general fund dollars, such as the lottery-funded Washington Opportunity Pathways account. That change, Fain believes, "will be successful in keeping the [charter] schools open."

But Pollet said the court's charter decision is not based on a technicality, but a deeper principal: "The majority has ruled you can't be spending public money on something that's not accountable to the public."

Earlier this week, two Spokane state lawmakers unveiled another, more-limited plan to restore local school districts' powers to create charter schools. Under their proposal, no statewide entity would have chartering authority and local school boards would have tighter control over the operations of the schools they create.

Pollet said Thursday he would not support either plan, saying lawmakers need to keep their priorities straight. Charter opponents point out lawmakers face state Supreme Court sanctions for failing to fix problems with how they fund traditional public schools. 

"I don't think parents or teachers or voters would spend a minute of time on an unconstitutional charter school law when they're currently violating the constitutional rights of students in Washington's public schools," said Rich Wood, a spokesman for the state's largest teachers union, the Washington Education Association.

The charter bill Fain co-sponsored with Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island; Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah; and Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, is due for a hearing in the Senate education committee on Tuesday.

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