Charter schools will move forward, but what about levy money?

Education funding is in the news yet again: Yesterday, a Superior Court judge ruled in the case a number of groups had brought against charter schools. Approved by voters in 2012, Initiative 1240 allowed a limited number of public charter schools to be opened in Washington. (None have opened yet.) It defined them as common schools. Further, as we wrote last year,

As with regular public schools, the superintendent of public instruction would allocate general apportionment, special education, categorical, and other non-basic education funds to charters. If a charter school has already opened, it must be included in “levy planning, budgets, and funding distribution” along with the other public schools in the district. Charters would be “eligible for state matching funds for common school construction.”

As the AP has reported,

Charter school opponents, represented by Attorney Paul Lawrence, say the law passed by voters is unconstitutional because it interferes with the state’s obligation to pay for public schools, set a uniform curriculum and establish other rules.

Of the ruling, the attorney general’s office said, “The judge upheld the charter schools law, as written, against multiple constitutional arguments, finding that only one limited aspect of the law should be stricken.”

The judge found that “A charter school cannot be defined as a common school because it is not under the control of the voters of the school district;” however, “the court holds that the charter school act meets the definition of a general and uniform school system.” Because charters, under this ruling, aren’t common schools, the judge ruled that they do not have access to state matching funds for school construction.

As to whether charters are eligible for local levies, the ruling notes (emphasis mine):

The final funding issue concerns the provisions regarding school levies. RCW 28A.710.220 provides that charter schools are eligible for local levy moneys that are approved by the voters before the school’s start date and that school districts must allocate levy moneys to the school. Generally, a levy cannot be used for a purpose for which it was not approved. The statute says, however, that the schools are merely eligible. The court holds that Plaintiffs’ claim under this section is not justiciable. The levy provision has not been implemented. There has been no actual injury.

True enough, but as I read the statute, a charter is generally eligible for levy funds only if the levy is approved after the school opens — except in the case of charters that are converted traditional public schools. They would be eligible for levy funds approved before the conversion. The statute specifically makes new charters ineligible for levy funds approved before they open — unless the school district is the authorizer (overseer of the charter).

Spokane Public Schools is currently the only approved school district authorizer. The Washingon Charter School Commission is also an authorizer. Twenty-two applications for charter schools (three under Spokane Public Schools) are being reviewed now. Only eight will be approved for 2014. Based on their letters of intent, two are conversions of existing schools (three of the letters are unclear on this point). It could very well be that of the eight eventually chosen, none will qualify for levy funds previously approved. Consequently, it could be a long time before the levy question becomes justiciable.

But will the inability to get school construction funds matter? According to the Seattle Times,

House Appropriations Chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said he hadn’t yet read the ruling, but he doesn’t think it will have much impact.

Even if charter schools can’t be financed with state property taxes, he said, “We use all kinds of money to pay for public schools.”

He even thinks the ruling might not restrict charters from receiving some types of school-construction money.

As we wrote in Comparative Analysis of School Funding, “Local tax levies may be used to fund non-basic education programs, but the amount that a district can raise with maintenance and operation levies is limited.” Additionally, “Washington provides an uncommonly high share of education funding from the state budget.”