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caption: Families at Rainier Prep, a charter school, at a work party last summer.
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Families at Rainier Prep, a charter school, at a work party last summer.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Ann Dornfeld

Could Lottery Money Save Charter Schools In Washington?

Two very different bills to restore charter schools’ legal status are facing lawmakers with the state Legislature back in session Monday.

Last September, the state Supreme Court declared charter schools unconstitutional in Washington. Because charters don’t have elected school boards, the court said, they can’t access the same “common schools" funding as traditional public schools.

State Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, is co-sponsoring a bill with a different source: lottery money. The change would affect not only charters but other non-traditional public schools, such as tribal schools and the state schools for the deaf and blind.

“We are funding them out of the Opportunity Pathways, which is the account funded by the lottery," Litzow said.

Charters would pull an estimated $9 million a year from the lottery account, which Litzow says stands at around $150 million. It is currently limited to paying for grants, scholarships and early childhood education.

A second bill, from Sens. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, and Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, would put charters under the authority of their local school boards.

Education activist and blogger Melissa Westbrook said that’s unrealistic.

"It puts so much work on school boards,” Westbrook said. “I’m not even sure people who are elected to school boards could do all the things that this law directs them to do – not their district, it directs them to do."

Westbrook doesn’t like the proposal to pay for charters with lottery money, either.

"My question would be, if you can get the money from there for charter schools, why can’t you get the money from there for McCleary?" she asked, referring to the high court decision that found that the state severely underfunds K-12 education.

Others favor one bill over another. Washington State Charter Schools Association spokeswoman Maggie Meyers said that her organization appreciates the intent of both bills but considers the governance bill too limited. She said it would be easiest to implement in the Spokane School District, the only district that had already served as a charter authorizer.

"While well-intentioned, this bill provides a limited solution that likely won't extend far enough to help schools outside of Spokane," Meyers said.

Meyers said her organization supports the funding bill and believes that it would address the constitutional issues that invalidated the original charter law.

In contrast, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn considers the funding bill inadequate, because it leaves charters under the auspices of the governor's office, rather than his office, and with appointed school boards.

Dorn said that so far only the governance bill would correct the constitutional deficiencies in the former charter law. "That one we will be supportive of," he said.

The sponsors of both charter school bills say their proposals would be complementary if enacted.

Still more bills to allow charters in Washington are expected. In the meantime, the state’s nine former charter schools are still operating, with various sources of funding.