Washington charter schools face defunding

Chief Regional Officer of Summit Public Schools Jen Wickens has spent the past two and a half years weathering the controversy surrounding charter schools in Washington state.

“I don’t know what else to say other than the parents are asking for this,” Wickens said. “These are voters. These are people who are tired of having a massive achievement gap in Washington state that nobody is doing anything about. The old system is not working.”

Responsible for opening two new public charter schools in the Seattle area, Wickens saw those schools defunded through a state Supreme Court ruling and is now advocating for the existence of her schools. Charter schools are not managed by publicly elected school boards and have an unregulated curriculum that differs from that of district schools.

Across the United States, charters have been the subject of a debate concerning how to best serve the educational needs of youth.

Advocates such as the Washington State Charter Schools Association, say charter schools provide a necessary alternative for families whose needs are not being met by district schools.

“Everyone on the Court agreed that charter schools are not common schools.”

Western Political Science Professor Paul Chen

Critics, such as those who are heavily involved in district schools, condemn the use of public education funds for schools that don’t have to follow the same regulations as districts.

Almost three and a half years after Washington voters narrowly approved Initiative 1240, allowing 40 public charter schools to open over the next five years, Washington state’s Supreme Court found an issue with the initiative. The state Supreme Court ruled in September that charter schools do not qualify as common schools and therefore cannot receive public school funds. Common schools are public schools that include primary and secondary grades.

When the state Supreme Court voted down the law, Wickens said she and other charters in the state filed for a motion of reconsideration and motioned for a stay until the next year. They were unsuccessful on both fronts.

Wickens said she is hopeful that aid for these schools will come through the legislative process.

This legislative process comes in the form of Bill 6194 which passed in the Senate and the House on March 9 and was passed into law on Sunday, April 3 after Governor Jay Inslee took no action to veto the bill.

The bill removed language in the charter school law that defined charters as “common schools,” an issue that Western Political Science Professor Paul Chen said solidified the state’s Supreme Court decision.

“Everyone on the Court agreed that charter schools are not common schools,” Chen said.

The bill represents an opportunity for public charter schools in the Seattle and Spokane areas to keep their doors open.

Bill 6194 also changed how charter schools are funded. Charter funds will now derive from the Washington Opportunity Pathways Account, which is funded by the state lottery.

Justice Fairhurst, who wrote the partly concurring and partly dissenting opinion on the Court, left open the possibility of funding through another account aside from the one reserved for common schools, Chen said.

“If the legislature has done this in the past — drawing from these funds and basically using these other sources for other purposes besides common schools — they could do that,” Chen said. “We’re not saying if it’s legal or not; it’s just that’s what the legislature could do because they’ve been doing it in the past.”

Carol Carlson, a teacher at View Ridge Elementary in Seattle, worries about how charter schools will affect funding for district schools.

Carlson has worked as a public school teacher for 18 years, and, although she is currently teaching at a relatively wealthy school, she has seen poverty in schools in the south end of Seattle.

Carlson said directing state-apportioned school funds toward charters would disproportionately affect schools in poorer communities since they are more reliant on state and federal money.

Carlson said these schools don’t have the fundraising capabilities of those in wealthier areas.

“I worked at a school called John Muir, and it was very poor. They actually tried to have an auction and only raised $60,” Carlson said. 

Carlson isn’t just worried about funding. She also has concerns about how charters are run.

“[Charters] favor children whose parents are more involved,” Carlson said. “The other thing is they don’t have to follow the stringent curriculum like we do…They’re not under a microscope like public schools.”

However, Wickens believes charters to be a valuable option for a struggling United States education system.

Wickens said students at Summit showed significant gains in reading and math over the course of the year.

She also said that the number of special education and English-language education students receive at the charters is on par with district schools.

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