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'We're Running Out Of Time': Lawmakers Weigh Different Approaches To Restoring Charter Schools

Elaine Thompson
AP Photo
Students, parents, advocates and others fill a hearing room during testimony on two proposed fixes to the state’s charter school system on Tuesday.";

A panel of state lawmakers weighed their options for keeping charter schools open long term in Washington during a meeting in Olympia on Tuesday.

Senate Education Committee members are considering two different bills with two different approaches to restoring and retooling the charter school law the state Supreme Court invalidated last year.

But opponents said neither proposal sufficiently addressed concerns the court raised in their 5-4 decision, which essentially held charter schools could not receive public funding because they weren't overseen by elected school boards.

“If you believe in charter schools — and I don’t, because after 20-plus years and 43 states, overall, their worth has not been proven — then write a clean bill and pass it. And I don’t believe you have time in the short session to do it,” said Melissa Westbrook, a Seattle education activist and blogger, in testimony before the committee.

But Sicily Johnson, a sixth grader at Destiny Charter Middle School in Tacoma, asked lawmakers to intervene. She wore a bright blue T-shirt that read "Keep Our Schools Open" as she delivered her testimony.

“We we’re running out of time to save charter schools because when the students of the charter school go on [summer] break, their school will be shutting down," she said. "Then parents have to go through stress to get their student into another school.”

Of the two bills lawmakers were considering, administrators for Johnson's school expressed support for the option championed by Senate Education Committee Chair Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island.

The bill Litzow and a bipartisan raft of lawmakers sponsored would essentially restore most of the state's original law, but with one key difference: instead of receiving general fund dollars, charter schools would be funded out of a separate account made up of state lottery proceeds.

A second, less-sweeping proposal from two Spokane lawmakers would only allow district school boards to create charter schools. Unlike under Washington's invalidated law, there would be no statewide charter authorizing body.

Given the anti-charter stances districts like Seattle and Tacoma have taken, that would effectively prevent students in certain districts from accessing charter schools.

But some opponents say students shouldn't have access to charter schools at all, arguing they siphon critical funds away from school districts.

“Both bills are unconstitutional because they would divert millions of dollars away from public schools at a time when the legislature is in contempt of court for failing to fund our public schools,” said David Spring, who leads the Coalition to Protect our Public Schools.

The powerful Washington Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, testified in opposition to both charter bills. But state schools superintendent Randy Dorn expressed his openness to finding a solution that keeps the schools open permanently.

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