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Thursday, May 28, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Parents, students face uncertain future after charter school ruling

Kati Evans, right, embraces her daughter Laela, 5, before kindergarten on Tuesday at Spokane International Academy. (Tyler Tjomsland)
Kati Evans, right, embraces her daughter Laela, 5, before kindergarten on Tuesday at Spokane International Academy. (Tyler Tjomsland)

Charter schools in Spokane had a normal school day Tuesday despite a landmark Washington Supreme Court ruling Friday that the publicly funded, privately run schools are unconstitutional.

The ruling overturned the charter school law narrowly approved by voters in 2012. It also left teachers, parents and students at Spokane’s two charter schools – both of which opened within the past couple of weeks – in limbo as state agencies and private organizations figure out how they’ll pay the bills.

“Like everybody, we were pretty shocked and disappointed with the ruling. We expected some components to be questioned but not the entire law,” said Brenda McDonald, the director of Pride Prep.

The school has 154 students enrolled in grades 6 and 7, with plans to expand through 12th grade over the coming years.

For now, directors at Spokane International Academy and Pride Prep say they’re staying the course, though it’s far from clear where funding for their operations will come from.

That’s left many parents feeling anxious.

“We’re scared,” said Casey Calahan, whose son, Dylan, is in sixth grade at Spokane International Academy. “Dylan loves it here, so we don’t want to put him back in the district.”

Ten charter schools are operating in Washington: two in Spokane and eight in the greater Seattle-Tacoma area. Three more are scheduled to open next year.

Spokane’s schools are unique because they’re authorized directly by Spokane Public Schools, which means the school board reviews their contracts every five years and can revoke their charters. All other charter schools in the state have been approved by the Washington State Charter School Commission.

Because charter schools are governed by their own boards, not elected school boards, the court said they don’t meet the definition of a “common school” and can’t receive state funds set aside for those schools.

Tom Franta, chief executive officer of the Washington State Charter Schools Association, said the fact that the Spokane schools are authorized by the local school district – which can hold the charters accountable – was apparently overlooked by the court in its ruling. It will be one of the points the association will raise in asking the court to reconsider its ruling.

“We believe there are ample grounds to file” for reconsideration, Franta said. But if that’s unsuccessful and state funding is ultimately cut off, the association believes it can find private grants to keep the schools operating.

“We will reach out to a large community of folks supportive of charter schools,” he said.

The Spokane Education Association welcomed the ruling, President Jenny Rose said. The union’s parent organization, the Washington Education Association, was one of the groups that sued over the charter school law.

“Charter schools are taking our taxpayers’ money away from our public schools and they’re dictated by a private board, which is just not right,” Rose said.

She said parents can find the services they’re looking for in existing public schools.

“Look around Spokane Public Schools and try to find a program or a school that matches what you think you are obtaining by using a charter school,” she said.

Parents appreciate the longer school days at both Spokane charters, and students say the schools are a better fit for their interests.

At Pride Prep, students cluster around small tables in an open room that resembles a tech startup more than a regular school. On Tuesday afternoon, they rushed to make TV antennas out of aluminum foil and coat hangers during the last few minutes of the school day.

“I need that challenge. It helps me learn,” said Tyler Fiorino, a sixth-grader.

Spokane International Academy students start Spanish instruction in kindergarten and have a globally focused curriculum.

“Being a global citizen is hugely important and not anything you get at public school,” said Michele Johnston, whose daughter Evalynn just started kindergarten at the school.

Spokane Public Schools has taken no position on the ruling, spokesman Kevin Morrison said.

“Our main interest obviously is to make sure that the students who are currently attending the Spokane-area authorized charter schools continue to have educational resources available to them” until the ruling is clarified, he said.

Some supporters are pushing for Gov. Jay Inslee to call a special session of the Legislature on charter schools, but a spokesman said Inslee is still studying the ruling and conferring with his lawyers and other advisers.

“We don’t see a special session as a starting place for anything,” said David Postman, an Inslee spokesman. “It’s a tool, not a strategy.”

Staff reporter Jim Camden contributed to this report.

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