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Washington Lawmakers Pass Bill to Restore the State's Charter Schools

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Lawmakers in Washington have passed a bill to resurrect the state's fledgling charter school sector six months after the state's Supreme Court ruled the original law unconstitutional.

It's the first time a state's high court has ruled wholesale against a charter law.

While charter school advocates are celebrating their hard-fought victory squeezed out of the legislature right before the end of the session, several lawmakers in both chambers raised the specter of a second lawsuit, saying they're not sure the revised law passes constitutional muster.

Washington's charter law passed by voter referendum in 2012, but was struck down by the state's Supreme Court in September. The court ruled that charters did not qualify as "common" schools—basically, public schools—because they are not overseen by locally elected school boards and, therefore, were not eligible to draw money from the general fund.

A bill championed by advocates to revive the law was passed by the Republican-controlled Senate in January, but had stalled in the House education committee before Rep. Larry Springer, a Democrat, used a procedural maneuver to resuscitate the bill and bring it to the House floor for a vote on Wednesday. 

Democrats control the House, but barely. And the effort to restore the law has met resistance from several groups, including the state's teachers' unions.

But after the measure, which directs charters to draw from a new funding source and layers more regulations on the schools, cleared the House on a bipartisan vote, 58-39, charter advocates felt they were in the clear.

"On behalf of the teachers, school leaders, students and families that have spent months of persistent and impassioned effort to keep the doors of opportunity open for Washington students, we are in incredibly grateful to our champions in Olympia," said Thomas Franta, CEO of the Washington State Charter Schools Association, in a statement on Wednesday. "But most importantly, I want to thank the families and advocates themselves who worked tirelessly for this result. They should all be immensely proud."

However, several lawmakers said they are concerned that without addressing the fact that charter schools are overseen by non-elected boards, the newly retooled law won't withstand the scrutiny of the High Court. 

"It tries to pretend that the only thing that was going on here was that the money was coming out of the wrong account and that's all we need to do to fix it," Jamie Pedersen, a Democrat, said during the Senate vote. "I ... expect we will be seeing it again when it comes back from the Supreme Court."

The bill passed the Senate 26-23 on Thursday, the last day of the legislative session. It now goes to Governor Jay Inslee, who has threatened to veto all bills if lawmakers fail to finish the budget, according to local media.

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Photo: Demonstrators rally in support of public charter schools on Feb. 25 at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. —Ted S. Warren/AP-File

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