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Battle continues over public funds for charter schools in Washington state

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(The Center Square) – A decade after the first public charter schools opened in Washington state, there are approximately 1,200 students on waiting lists to get into them, according to this year’s Charter Schools Report prepared by the Washington State Board of Education.

Despite the demand and annual reports of high student achievement in charter schools, state lawmakers have been reluctant to expand the number of schools or offer equal funding.

Liv Finne, director of the Center for Education at the Washington Policy Center, says the contrast with what some other states are doing is dramatic, pointing to an article in the Daily Montanan this week about charter schools opening in that state.

“They expected to open five schools but it’s taking off, and they’ve already approved 19 schools in Montana,” Finne said. “It’s very exciting and positive and in stark contrast to Washington state where lawmakers effectively closed off expansion of the window to open up to 40 charter schools in the first five years.”

Washington’s Charter School Act went into effect in April 2016. The law aims to provide access to high-quality educational opportunities for at-risk students. It allows for the creation of up to 40 charter schools over five years.

A handful of charter schools closed in previous years, Finne explained, and only 18 charter schools are currently operating. In her view, lawmakers need to re-open the window for new charter schools.

“We can’t get anymore, despite the demand,” she said.

The financial strain on charter schools in Washington remains a huge obstacle.

“For the last six or seven sessions, there have been bills proposed to eliminate the funding discrimination policy that we have in Washington state,” Finne said.

In Washington, state funding for charter public schools comes from the state’s Opportunity Pathways Account, which contains lottery revenues. Charter schools receive the same amount per student in state funding as other schools, but they do not have access to extra funding in the form of local property tax revenues.

“This is, of course, wildly unfair because these are public school students being discriminated against,” Finne said. “These are students who, having voluntarily chosen to go to a public charter school, get on average about $3,000 less per student funding than their peers in traditional public schools get.”

There are charter school supporters on budget committees in Olympia who have tried to remedy that, according to Finne.

“Every year, charter schools get about half of the funding gap made up, about $1,600 per student, but that’s a one-year budget, and it puts charter schools in a perpetual state of anxiety over their budgets because it’s just a one-year guarantee,” she noted.

Finne said the Washington Education Association is not a fan of charter schools.

“The WEA fears competition from public schools because the research shows that charter schools do a much better job educating children, particularly if they come from Black or Hispanic families,” she said.

During a January legislative public hearing, WEA lobbyist Julie Salvi spoke against a bill to allow charter schools access to local levy dollars.

“WEA has a long-standing position in opposition to specialized funding streams for charter schools,” she said at the time.

The Center Square reached out to the Washington Office for Superintendent of Public Instruction for its take on charter schools but did not receive a reply by the time of publication.