After three years of legal wrangling, the Washington State Supreme Court has ruled that charter schools do not violate the state constitution and can remain open. The decision comes after a 2015 ruling by the high court against charter schools which prompted state lawmakers to craft a bipartisan solution during the 2016 legislative session.
Currently, there are 12 charter schools in Washington with 3,500 students attending. Created via a 2012 voter initiative, a subsequent lawsuit led to a 2015 state supreme court decision that concluded the schools were illegal because they were controlled by appointed board members of a non-profit instead of elected school board members, and thus did not meet the definition of “common schools”.”
A 2016 bill got around that by funding the charter schools with lottery revenue; the general fund is used to pay for basic education. It narrowly cleared the legislature, becoming law when Governor Jay Inslee refused to sign or veto it.
However, a follow-up lawsuit was filed by a variety of groups including public sector unions, Women’s League of Voters and the Washington Education Association.
In its new ruling, the high court wrote: “it is not the province of this court to express favor or disfavor of the legislature’s policy decision to create charter schools. Rather, our limited role is to determine whether the enacted legislation complies with the requirements of our state constitution. We conclude that its only unconstitutional provision is severable, and thus we affirm the trial court in part and hold that the remainder of the Charter School Act is constitutional on its face.”
The decision was celebrated by Washington State Charter Schools Association CEO Patrick D’Amelio, calling it a “resounding victory with the court. It ensures that public dollars will continue to flow to students in public schools.”
In a statement, he also called it “a big step forward in the fight to close the opportunity gap that persists in our state.”
At the same time, he told Lens that the ruling won’t change ongoing plans, saying he expected they would stay “much the same course that we were already on.”
While the 2016 state law allows for up to 40 charter schools by 2021, he says their focus is on ensuring the education quality of their current schools. “We are less concerned about the number and timeline as we are the learning. We think that’s been the right pathway.”
In a statement, Washington Association of School Administrators (WASA) Executive Director Joel Aune wrote: “we are disappointed in the Court’s decision but feel this provides closure on an issue that has continued to cloud discussions about K-12 funding over the last six years. We hope today’s decision will better ensure that charter schools are well-managed and held accountable for the tax dollars they receive.”
Washington Policy Center Education Director Liv Finne wrote in a statement that the high court decision “should end the WEA union’s political effort to shut down their schools. Now we need to make sure that charter school families receive equitable funding and fair treatment within the public school system. If we want to truly educate every child in the state we need to give parents and students choices.
“Children don’t all learn the same way,” she added. “Charters recognize that and give parents options to find the best fit for their child.”
According to the association, “students at Washington’s charter public high schools outperformed their peers in local districts and across the state by more than 10 percent on the 11th grade statewide science test (WCAS)” in the 2017-2018 academic year. More than half their students come from low-income households.