A ruling by the Washington State Supreme Court overturning a 2012 voter-approved charter school law could leave about 1,300 students without a school next year.
The ruling came Friday, just before Labor Day weekend.
For now, the students are attending classes, but the fate of the schools is unclear. The Washington State Charter School Association has said it will find a way to keep charters open through the end of the school year, even if public funding is pulled.
The court ruled the state’s charter school law unconstitutional, based in part on the way charter schools are funded.
Charter supporters have been calling for a special legislative session so lawmakers can change the funding formula, keeping the schools open and consistent with the ruling. The court took issue with the way charters are funded because an independent board—not an elected school board—operates the schools.
If the ruling were applied consistently, it would also close tribal schools and many STEM-focused schools, said Liv Finne, director of the Center for Education at the Washington Policy Center.
“There’s been a great deal of experimentation in how we govern our schools. The private sector has come in and partnered with [the public sector],” she said.
Rich Wood, spokesman for the Washington Education Association, a plaintiff in the case against charters, dismissed these concerns.
“Are they going to file a court case questioning the constitutionality of other existing laws? I don’t know. This law’s about charter schools—or, this law was about charter schools. The entire law has been thrown out as unconstitutional,” he said.
The state constitution requires that certain money be set aside only to fund “common schools.” Since charter schools don’t fall under the umbrella of “common schools,” they don’t have access to that restricted funding, the court reasoned.
Dissenting justices agreed that charter schools do not fall under the constitutional definition of “common schools,” but the charter school law doesn’t require money to come from the restricted “common school” pot. Plenty of money from the state’s unrestricted general fund already goes toward traditional and non-traditional public schools, and charter schools could simply be funded from the unrestricted pot.
“These judges are anachronistic and reactionary, and do not wish to give low-income, minority and immigrant children the opportunity to improve themselves by choosing better schools for themselves,” said Finne, who noted that many of the judges received maximum campaign contributions from the WEA.
Arguments from the pro-charter side of the lawsuit were all but ignored, said Thomas Franta, CEO of WA Charters.
“The majority opinion, by and large, took the opponents’ legal position nearly word for word. We believe that there are ample opportunities within the state budget to fund public charter schools in a manner that is constitutional. Our attorneys explored many of those options in the briefs and in oral argument. We were quite shocked that the court appears to have not examined any of those options,” Franta said.
Franta and others took issue with the fact the ruling came late Friday—before a holiday weekend and after school had begun for many charter students.
“The timing of the decision was unconscionable,” Franta said. “The Supreme Court has had this case on their table for nearly a year now, and they’ve waited until after the schools have opened up, so kids and families have been in school, some of them for three weeks now, bonding with their classmates, bonding with their teachers. The court’s essentially stepping in and pulling the rug from underneath them.”
End of the road?
Already, supporters are mobilizing to defend charters and charter school families. State Rep. Eric Pettigrew joined the #SaveWACharterSchools campaign on Twitter to ask Gov. Jay Inslee to call a special legislative session. The Washington Charter School Association and others want a special session, asking lawmakers to change the charter law to keep the schools open in a way that agrees with the high court’s interpretation of the state constitution.
It’s still early after the ruling, and most plans haven’t been finalized. Charter supporters are considering asking the court to reconsider or at least comment on the effect the ruling will have on the students already in charter schools. Others are considering bringing the issue back to voters, who played a role in passing the original law three years ago.
“Our most immediate priority is to make sure the students remain at the school they selected, and the nine charter schools in the state continue operation,” said Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, which has been lending communications and legal support to WA Charters.
In the meantime, charter school students can expect “a great, high-quality public education,” Franta said. “They should expect to see nothing different at schools over this time[.] … They are public schools serving public school students, and they’re entitled to public dollars. We’re going to continue fighting on their behalf.”
Despite the ruling, charter schools saw 100 percent attendance Tuesday, Franta said.
“Everyone chose to stay at their public charter school.”
The association is working with community supporters to find ways to sustain charter school operations through the end of the year, he said.
“This is not the end of the road for charter schools in Washington state,” Rees said.