The Washington Legislature’s action — or in this case, deferral of action until next year — on K-12 school funding isn’t the only education-related issue facing lawmakers this legislative session. The Legislature also is tasked with finding a fix for the state’s voter-approved charter schools law. Right now, it is falling short.
Like the McCleary ruling on state school funding, the charter schools issue came to the Legislature after a ruling by the state Supreme Court. In September, the court ruled 6-3 that the state’s “common schools” fund can be spent only by locally elected school boards, not the appointed members of the commission that oversees the charter schools.
A charter school is a public school that is open to all students but generally operates independently of school district management and administrative rules. Under a tightly drawn initiative, narrowly approved by voters in 2012, a maximum of eight schools a year could open for five years.
Since the initiative’s approval, nine charter schools have opened, serving about 1,200 students. State funding ended at the end of November, and the charters have stitched together a variety of funding mechanisms to stay open through this school year.
None of the schools is in the Yakima Valley, but that’s not for lack of trying or interest. An effort by a Sunnyside group was rejected in 2014, and supporters right now say they have received 300 letters of support from families in the Yakima Valley, but they can’t proceed without knowing the fate of the program.
The Republican-controlled state Senate has done its part by passing SB 6194, which would use lottery proceeds to pay for charter schools, thus meeting the court’s concerns about a funding source.
But things aren’t going so well in the House. Key Democrats have kept a companion bill from passing through to the House floor, though charter school advocates say that with a handful of Democrats on board, there are enough votes in the full House to pass it. The House obstructionism reflects opposition from Democratic allies like the Washington Education Association, the union representing teachers. Charter school allies say they also have encountered opposition from school district administrators.
The House is coming back with a different, yet-to-be-defined measure that could win more Democratic votes, but whose provisions risk a stalemate with Republicans — this as the Legislature nears its mid-March adjournment date. If the House can come up with a stronger bill, that’s one thing; but the maneuvering shouldn’t be used as a means to put further limits on charter schools — or sink them altogether.
One point for legislative opponents to consider: Seven of the nine charters have been set up in Seattle, Tacoma and South King County, the core of Democratic Party strength in the state. Amid much talk about the learning gap among racial minorities in public schools, the charters are trying to do something about it.
Charter school advocates say minorities make up more than 70 percent of statewide charter school students, almost double the statewide average for all public schools. Almost 70 percent of charter students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Minorities make up almost 40 percent of charter teachers, more than three times the statewide average. The percentages are highest in the seven Western Washington schools.
Those numbers haven’t been lost on the hundreds of Yakima Valley supporters, many of whom are Latino, who see charters as a tool to bridge the chronic learning gap in Valley schools.
The Legislature should not deny them that opportunity. Lawmakers need to keep the current schools open, allow up to 40 schools over the next five years as stated in the initiative, and maintain a state authorization body.
Charters aren’t a panacea to the state’s educational issues, and there have been problems in some of the more than 40 states that operate them. Supporters acknowledge in drawing up a law that limits the number of charters and calls for effective oversight.
The schools already have brought together students, parents, educators and community members who have invested their time and toil to set up the schools. A number of individuals in the Yakima Valley have signaled that they would like to follow suit. The Legislature is letting down these committed charter school supporters — present and future — if they heed the critics who reflexively fear that something different just might be something better.
• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Bob Crider, Frank Purdy and Karen Troianello.