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Checks and Balances 

Washington's charter schools ruled unconstitutional; plus, Envision says its worker rights initiative would be an economic boon

click to enlarge Travis Franklin started Spokane International Academy, one of the charter schools ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court. - TIMOTHY PHILLIPS
  • Timothy Phillips
  • Travis Franklin started Spokane International Academy, one of the charter schools ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court.

CLASS DISMISSED

Spokane International Academy had been open for only eight days when it was threatened with extinction. On Friday, the Washington State Supreme Court, ruling on a lawsuit brought in part by the Washington Education Association, found CHARTER SCHOOLS unconstitutional.

Charter schools, independently operated but publicly funded, had been narrowly approved by a 2012 voter initiative. But drawing largely on a decision from 1909, the majority of the court determined that to be a "common school," constitutionally eligible for state funding, a school had to be governed by an elected board. Without elected boards, the court found, the entire initiative was unconstitutional.

"The Supreme Court has affirmed what we've said all along — charter schools steal money from our existing classrooms, and voters have no say in how these charter schools spend taxpayer funding," Kim Mead, president of the Washington Education Association, says in a statement.

Yet nine charter schools, with about 1,200 students, including Spokane International Academy, had already opened when the ruling came down.

"I've probably had 60 parents email me directly, and tell me, 'Let me know what I need to do to help,'" says Travis Franklin, founder of the Academy. He says he expected the court to restrict the money that could be used by charters, but he never expected anything so severe.

Charter supporters have begun lobbying the legislature and Gov. Jay Inslee to introduce a special session to figure out a way to save charters.

State Rep. Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, argues that the court's logic would also shut down public funding for Running Start and tribal schools, neither of which have elected boards. If those are allowed, on the other hand, the legislature could change statutes to make charters a separate part of the budget without violating the state constitution.

While their long-term future is uncertain, both Spokane charters, PRIDE Prep and Spokane International Academy, have pledged to remain open this school year.

"Our program will go uninterrupted for the remainder of this year," Franklin says. "We're not closing down overnight." (DANIEL WALTERS)

WHAT'S NEXT?

Envision Spokane the driving force behind four far-reaching initiatives that have qualified for the ballot, released an analysis showing its most recent measure would help the city financially. The group also saw its ongoing legal battle escalate to the state's top court.

According to an analysis released last week by Envision, the group's WORKER BILL OF RIGHTS, which seeks to grant new protections to workers and guarantees a living wage for employees of larger businesses, would, if passed, result in workers having more disposable income, leading to more economic growth, more revenue for the city, more people purchasing homes and fewer workers being eligible for public assistance.

The analysis draws on research from think tanks and universities that have examined communities that have mandated higher pay for workers. But Envision's opponents say that the initiative will do the opposite.

"I think that the way they have gone about putting this initiative together will hurt workers pretty severely when you look at the facts," says Michael Cathcart, lobbyist for the Spokane Home Builders Association who is also heading the campaign against the initiative. Cathcart says it's not clear how the initiative will calculate a living wage and many employers will think twice about staying in Spokane should it pass.

Last week, the Washington Supreme Court agreed to review a challenge to Envision's Community Bill of Rights initiative, which qualified for the ballot in 2013 only to be blocked by a Spokane Superior Court judge after a coalition of business and government entities brought a pre-election legal challenge against it. The decision was successfully appealed by Envision, and no date has been set for its next hearing. (JAKE THOMAS)

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