Washington senators introduce charter school proposal

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OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — The charter school system in Washington, struck down by a state Supreme Court ruling last September, has new hope in a bipartisan proposal introduced by lawmakers Monday that seeks to make the schools constitutional.

Democratic Sen. Andy Billig and Republican Sen. Michael Baumgartner, both from Spokane, filed Senate Bill 6163 to make charter schools accountable to locally elected school boards. In striking down the state's voter-approved charter school law, the high court previously took issue that charter schools were supported with state dollars and governed by a board not elected by residents. The court said in November it wouldn't reconsider its decision.

If the bill is passed, a potential charter school would negotiate freedom from district policies like the length of a school day, policies regarding staff and curriculum.

A charter school would meet with its district regularly and be compliant with many state laws, regulations and standards.

"This bill creates a framework for school districts to create a charter school and it will be very much up to the district and the charter school to fill in the details of that framework," Billig said Monday. He added the nine operating charter schools in the state would have an expedited process to apply to their school districts.

Democratic Rep. Gerry Pollet of Seattle, who is opposed to charter schools, noted school districts already open alternative high schools, and said lawmakers shouldn't prioritize saving the charter system.

"We need to be focusing on our paramount duty of funding our children's basic education this session, that's job one," he said.

Billig said that under his bill, the charter schools would have more flexibility than a traditional alternative school, "but not to the point of a traditional charter school because those have been ruled unconstitutional in our state."

The open charter schools will continue through this school year, according to Maggie Meyers, a spokeswoman for the Washington State Charter Schools Association. The schools have been trying temporary fixes after losing state funding because of the court's decision. First Place Scholars, a school for kindergarten through fifth grades with 106 students, became a tuition-free private school after the court's decision. The school in Seattle's Central District neighborhood was previously a private school.

Meyers said Monday the association is confident the Legislature will find a way to keep the charter system open but added charter schools "could close if the Legislature doesn't act."

Washington voters narrowly passed Initiative 1240 in 2012 to allow charter schools with about 51 percent of the vote.

The state's 2016 legislative session begins on Jan. 11.

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