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Washington's Much-Contested Charter Schools Face Another Legal Challenge

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Washington state's battle-scarred charter school law is being challenged once again in court.

After being struck down by the state's supreme court last fall and then resurrected by the legislature this spring, a group of parents backed by several organizations including the largest state's teachers' union, has filed a lawsuit this week challenging the constitutionality of charter schools. 

The move doesn't come as a surprise. The Washington Education Association, which was a plaintiff in the last lawsuit, signaled soon after the legislature passed a bill this spring tweaking the charter law, that there would likely be another lawsuit.

The Tangled History of Washington's Charter School Law

The original law allowing for charter schools in Washington was passed by voter referendum in 2012.

After a tour through lower courts, the state's high court ruled the law unconstitutional last September on the grounds that charters did not qualify as "common" schools—basically, public schools—because they were not overseen by locally elected school boards and, therefore, were not eligible to draw money from the general fund.

A bill that changes the funding source for charters and imposes more regulations on them, among other things, barely squeezed out of the legislature by the end of the session this spring. Although Gov. Jay Inslee did not sign the bill, he did not veto it, and it became law in April.

This latest lawsuit argues that the law still diverts crucial public dollars away from traditional district schools. The same year voters passed the ballot initiative to create charters, the state's supreme court ruled in a case called McCleary v. Washington that lawmakers were failing to adequately fund public education.

That ruling—and the legislature's failure to act on it—has led to the high court levying a daily $100,000 fine on the state, and the state superintendent to sue the state and seven school districts all in an attempt to goad lawmakers into addressing the funding problems.

Washington was a fairly late adopter of charter schools—only a handful of states, in mostly rural parts of middle America, remain without charter laws.

The legal fight over the constitutionality of charter school funding in Washington state may have inspired a separate lawsuit in Mississippi, another recent comer to the charter sector. The Southern Poverty Law Center announced a similarly-styled challenge to the state's charter law last month.

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