Private Funding to Keep Charter Schools Open 'Uncertain,' Backers Say


The Washington State Charter Schools Association has acknowledged that it has not yet raised enough private money to keep Washington charters running for a full school year.

Following a state Supreme Court ruling in September that invalidated Washington's charter school law, the private association had expressed confidence it would be able to raise an estimated $14 million in donations to keep the schools running for a year.

But in a motion filed Wednesday with the Supreme Court, the association appears to be backing down from that confidence as it makes a plea for continued public funding for the remainder of the school year.

Charter schools received their September state funding, according to the state charter school commission, the appointed government body that authorized seven of the state's nine charter schools.

The association said in its court motion that it is aware of potential donors, and that both it and the individual schools are actively seeking contributions.

But the court motion adds that "the results are uncertain. It would be pure speculation to believe that all nine schools could raise enough to continue operating through this school year."

The association says in a news release that continued public funding is crucial to keeping the schools open.

The association is asking the state Supreme Court to delay the effective date of its Sept. 4 ruling, which struck down the charter school law approved by voters in 2012.

The association asks that the court delay enforcing the ruling until June 30 to allow students already enrolled in charter schools to complete the school year there. Nine charter schools with nearly 1,300 students -- including three schools in Tacoma -- had already opened when the Supreme Court ruling was issued.

The association argues that forcing students -- especially special education students -- to transition to another public school now would be harmful to their education. The court document says that special needs students make up more than 10 percent of the population at eight of the nine charters.

The association also contends that some school districts might have trouble accommodating returning students. One example cited in its motion says that Gray Middle School and First Creek Middle School in the Tacoma School District would each need to absorb 30 sixth graders who are now at Destiny Charter Middle School in Tacoma.

Tacoma Public Schools spokesman Dan Voelpel said the district has the capacity to accommodate those students.

"Without knowing who the students are and where they live and which middle schools the parents would choose for their children, I can't say which schools they would go to," he added.

The court said in September that privately operated, publicly funded charter schools do not qualify as common schools under Washington's constitution and therefore are not entitled to public funding. They are not common schools, the court said, because they are not controlled by elected boards. Instead, charters are governed by nonprofit organizations that appoint their own boards to oversee operations.

On Sept. 24, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a motion for reconsideration, asking the court to re-examine its decision. The court has given the charter association until Oct. 23 to file a similar request.

Angel Morton, president of the Tacoma Education Association, said in an opinion column on that more than 1,000 educators have signed an online petition asking Ferguson to drop his motion. The state teachers union, the Washington Education Association, was one of the plaintiffs in the 2013 lawsuit that resulted in the September Supreme Court ruling against charters.

Morton wrote that calls for the Legislature to fix the state's charter law are misguided.

"Instead of trying to fix an unfixable law, let's focus on finally funding quality public schools for all of Washington's more than 1 million students," Morton wrote. "That's what the constitution requires."

Ferguson's motion said the court ruling could call into question not only charter schools, but also state-funded programs like Running Start, which pays for an estimated 20,000 high school students to attend community colleges and earn college credits and degrees. The colleges are governed by appointed boards.

One difference from charters, however, is that Running Start students usually retain their status as students in their home school districts while they study on college campuses.

"We are asking the court to reconsider the language of the opinion to avoid uncertainty for programs that support students throughout the state," Ferguson said in a news release.

In addition to Running Start, he also cited tribal compact schools and a program at the University of Washington for highly capable middle and high school students as possibly being jeopardized by the court ruling.

Ferguson argues that even if the court finds the charter funding system invalid, the rest of the charter law should be left intact.

He also asks the court to reconsider whether the two charter schools authorized by the elected Spokane School Board should be allowed to continue. The state's seven other charter schools were authorized by the state charter school commission, made up of members appointed by state officials.