Under the gun, lawmakers race to the finish line


The state capitol in Olympia, WA.

As the last hours of the Legislature's regular 2016 session wind down, lawmakers have cleared the big hurdle to keeping charter schools open, leaving the question of the state's budget looming against the backdrop of a possible special session.

In what amounted to a victory for Republicans and charter school advocates, the Democratic-run state House late Wednesday passed a Republican-sponsored bill to keep Washington's charter schools open, and allow their continued expansion. That proposal, from the Senate, was revived earlier in the week after missing a deadline in a House committee.

The passage of the bill recovered some momentum and sense of collaboration in the Legislature, amid heightened differences between the Democrats and Republicans. Even with the charter school issue resolved, however, lawmakers only have Thursday left to pass a supplemental budget — something that qualifies, at best, as meeting minimum expectations for legislative performance. And, when legislators gathered in January, the inability to pass a supplemental budget in time to meet Thursday night’s constitutional deadline for finishing this year's session would have seemed only a remote possibility.

Now, a timely completion of the supplemental budget, essentially a modest update of the two-year budget they passed last June, has become a bit of a longshot. That's even after a frustrated Gov. Jay Inslee issued a threat earlier in the week to veto every bill passed by lawmakers if legislators don’t come up with a budget in time. That would require the lawmakers to come back in a special session — it could start as early as Friday — to finish a budget and, apparently, again approve virtually everything they have already passed, including measures to help troubled Western State Hospital and a bill to address educational achievement gaps. The education measure finally passed after languishing for years. And the 2016 Legislature – even if a special session were called – seems to have failed to address concerns about persistent under-representation of minorities in local elected bodies.

At least on the charter issue, though, the Legislature came together in recent days. By the middle of the week, legislators said an agreement on the issue had largely been reached, with only relatively minor details to iron out. "We're at the point where it's really just technical fixes," said Rep. Chad Magendanz, R-Issaquah, said during the closed-door discussions of the charter schools fix bill that took up much the day Wednesday.

Magendanz is the ranking minority member on the House Education Committee. In what appeared to be a victory for Republicans and charter school advocates, the measure passed late Wednesday had only a few differences from a version that Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, had earlier blocked in the House Education Committee, which she chairs.

Instead of putting out a separate bill, some Democrats working behind the scenes on the issue came up with an amendment to attach to the Republican-sponsored bill that finally passed the House on Wednesday. Major features of the amendment, put forward by Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, included striking down the ability of teachers at existing public schools to move to convert their schools to charter status.

Charter schools were allowed in Washington by a 2012 initiative, by a narrow margin. Late last summer, the state Supreme Court found the initiative unconstitutional. That decision effectively froze the process, but came too late to stop the founding of 10 of the schools. Two converted to private schools after the decision, but eight remained open in limbo and without state funding.

The initiative set a limit of 40 charter schools to begin with, established a state board to govern them, and ordered that they be funded from the same source as public schools. But according to the court, the fact that the schools weren't run by elected, local school boards made it unconstitutional for them to receive public funds.

Charter school advocates said the schools faced a bleak outlook if the Legislature didn't allocate new funding.

The House-passed bill proposed resolving the constitutionality issue simply by designating the schools as outside the system of ordinary public schools — common schools, in constitutional parlance — and switching their funding to an account supplied by state lottery revenues. Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, originally sponsored the bill.

In floor debate on the measure Wednesday, some Democrats maintained their objections to two major pillars of the measure — the expansion of the schools to as many as 40 statewide and the governance of charter schools by a state board instead of local school boards. Others said keeping them open would inevitably lead to a court challenge from opponents of the schools. And some of those Democrats attached their own amendments to the larger bill. But one by one Wednesday, those amendments were voted down.

Some Democrats, moreover, were supportive of the larger bill. Rep. Eric Pettigrew, D-Seattle, urged his fellow lawmakers to look at supporting charter schools as one potential part of broader solutions to education.

"If it's one kid or 800 kids, it doesn't matter," Pettigrew said. "It's what we need to do."

Pettigrew had signed Litzow's original bill. Wednesday, enough Democrats agreed with him to swing the normally Democratic-controlled House, and the bill passed 58 to 39.

Now, only getting final approval from the Republican-controlled Senate, where support for charters is firm, stands between the measure and the governor's desk.

With the charter schools proposal effectively out of the way, lawmakers  need only to reach an agreement on a supplemental budget by the end of Thursday, but the two sides are far apart on key issues. Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, who is running the budget negotiations for House Democrats, wouldn't confirm in an interview with TVW late last week that he expects Gov. Inslee to call a special session, he was cagey about whether it could be avoided.

Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, and Sen. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, said they saw ending on time as unlikely.

The budget split is focused on two issues. Democrats have advocated against balancing the budget over four years, arguing that only balancing for two years is necessary. Republicans have pushed to fill one budget hole — caused by a deficit in a pension fund for teachers — by merging that pension fund with another that supports police officers and firefighters. On TVW, Dunshee called the distance between the two parties large. If they've managed to bridge that gap in the week since his appearance, the session will be over on time — but so far, the smart money seems to be going the other way.

The name and hometown of Rep. Dunshee has been corrected since this story first appeared.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Tom James

Tom James

Tom James is a feature writer and photographer from Kingston, Washington, who has reported from Seattle, Olympia, Guatemala, Jordan, and the Olympic Peninsula on topics ranging from drug use in the Navy to the silent epidemic of PTSD among refugees and what happens when fathers are deported. You can find his contact information at http://www.tom-james.net