Washington's charter schools to stay open despite ruling

By Gene Johnson, Associated Press | Posted - Sep. 8, 2015 at 5:21 p.m.


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SEATTLE (AP) — All nine of Washington state's charter schools will remain open for the entire school year, despite a ruling from the Washington Supreme Court that found them unconstitutional, the head of the Washington State Charter Schools Association said Tuesday.

The 6-3 ruling late Friday afternoon said charter schools do not qualify as "common" schools under the Washington Constitution and cannot receive public funding intended for those traditional public schools, which the court has said are underfunded as it is.

The decision cast doubt on what would happen to the 1,200 students in charter schools, but Tom Franta, chief executive of the charter schools association, said Tuesday that all nine have committed to remaining open for the year, even if that means relying on private donations. The cost to operate the schools, which are in Spokane, Tacoma, Kent, Highline and Seattle, is estimated at $14 million a year.

"All of them have said unequivocally they will be open for the entire 2015-2016 school year," Franta said. "If it so happens that public funding becomes unavailable, we are working with a large community of sponsors who want to make sure these schools stay open."

The news that the schools would remain open for the year brought "a huge, emotional shout of 'thank goodness'" from parents who attended a meeting at SOAR Academy in Tacoma on Tuesday, said Thelma Jackson, chairwoman of the school's board.

But a potential long-term solution remained elusive. The charter schools association said it would ask the court to reconsider its ruling and, failing that, lobby Gov. Jay Inslee to call a special session of the Legislature — though it's not certain the problems could likely be addressed during one.

Several charter schools planned demonstrations for Thursday.

"This is not something I can just look from the sidelines and not do something about," said Deanne Hilburn, whose son is a sixth-grader at Excel Public Charter School in Kent. Citing what she described as a big change in his attitude toward school since he started there last month, Hilburn said she planned to make signs for Thursday's demonstration and to join other parents in writing to lawmakers.

Initiative 1240 passed with 50.7 percent of the vote in 2012, making Washington the 42nd state to approve charter schools. The measure provided for the opening of as many as 40 charter schools within five years. The first opened last fall. This school year, eight more have opened, with classes beginning over the past few weeks.

The state teachers union and the League of Women Voters were among the groups that challenged the law. They argued charter schools were siphoning money that would otherwise go to traditional public schools. Washington is facing sanctions from the Supreme Court, in a separate case known as the McCleary lawsuit, for failing to adequately pay for those schools, which serve 1 million schoolchildren.

In her majority opinion, Chief Justice Barbara Madsen cited precedent from 1909 in ruling that charter schools are not common schools because they are controlled by a charter school board — not by local voters. She further rebuffed an argument from the state that the charter schools could be paid for from the general fund rather than money specifically intended for public schools, because the state doesn't segregate the funds and thus doesn't have a way to ensure restricted money isn't spent on charter schools.

Some lawmakers, including Auburn Republican Rep. Drew Stokesbary, suggested the Legislature could make tweaks to the law as needed, such as by segregating the money that could be used for charter schools in a separate account. Stokesbary noted that the ruling also has implications for other types of educational programs — including tribal schools that receive state money and Running Start, a program by which high school students can gain college credit.

"The idea those things could be threatened is really concerning," he said.

Paul Lawrence, a lawyer for the groups that challenged the charter school law, said any legislative fix would be complex. The court threw out the entire charter schools law, so legislators would have to begin writing from the beginning.

Any special session should focus on the funding needs of public schools, not charter schools, he said.

"The initiative was promoted as basically creating an adjunct of the public school system to be funded with existing schools money," he said. "That can't be fixed. You'd have to create a separate funding system, a separate supervision system. I don't know that there's political will to do that."

While the justices focused on how the state pays for charter schools, they also said the charter schools are unconstitutional because they aren't subject to local voter control. That raised the question of whether a constitutional amendment would be needed to allow for public charter schools.

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, a Democrat from Covington, said attorneys for his caucus are still evaluating that. Sullivan, who opposed the initiative, said he's nevertheless open to a solution.

"I would love to see a solution around McCleary and around this issue at the same time," he said. "This is all around providing students opportunities."

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AP Correspondent Rachel La Corte contributed from Olympia.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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