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Washington Supreme Court Upholds State's Embattled Charter Schools

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Charter schools in Washington state can continue to receive public money, the state's high court has ruled.

Charter schools have been in limbo for years in the state due to questions over whether they are constitutionally funded. The Oct. 25 ruling represents a big win for charter school advocates and a reversal of their fortunes from three years ago when the state supreme court ruled charters had no right to the pot of state money they were being funded from.

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It also marks the end of a long and uncertain saga for the state's dozen charter schools. 

"We are grateful the court recognized that charter schools are a critical piece of the public education landscape in Washington and that charter schools' permanent place in that landscape has been affirmed," said Nina Rees, the president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.  

Washington voters first approved the opening of charter schools in 2012 through a referendum, but that was after rejecting the idea in three prior ballot initatives. That law was challenged by several groups, most prominently the state's largest teachers' union.

In a bombshell ruling in 2015, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that charters were unconstitutionally funded with money from the general fund for the state's common schools—essentially traditional public schools. That effectively shut down the state's nascent charter sector shortly after the school year had started at several campuses. It was the first ruling of its kind nationally in the 25 years charter schools have been around.

Most of the state's nine charter schools that had already launched managed to stay open as special district programs and home-schooling centers. One charter school converted back to a no-tuition private school. 

The following legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill to resurrect the state's charter sector primarily through changing the funding source to one separate from the general fund and fed by lottery revenues.

That bill barely squeezed out of the legislature in the final days of the session, and Gov. Jay Inslee refused to sign or veto it, which after a time meant the bill became law without his signature.  

While the schools that had lost their charter status reopened as charter schools in time for the 2016-17 school year, the law was quickly challenged by several groups including, again, the Washington Education Association.

Which brings us to Thursday's ruling.  

"Washington Education Association members are disappointed in the state Supreme Court's decision to uphold Washington's charter school law," said WEA spokesman Rich Wood in a statement. "We still believe it is wrong to divert public funds to privately run organizations that are not accountable to local voters."

Whether charter schools are entitled to public money when they are not run by locally elected school boards was among a number of constitutional questions the court addressed in its ruling in El Centro de la Raza v. Washington. Among them:

  • Whether charter schools violate the state constitution's demand for a general and uniform system of public schools;
  • whether the state charter school commission which was set up to oversee charter schools undermines the authority of the state superintendent;
  • and whether the charter law illegally restricts the collective bargaining rights of charter school employees.

On that last point, the court ruled that the charter law was unconstitutional. The law prohibits some charter school employees from forming collective bargaining units made up of multiple schools—a departure from other state laws governing unionization.

The court struck down the provision more on a technical point: it wasn't clear within the statute how it would affect other collective bargaining laws. To put it another way:

"You can't pass a law or write a law in some way where another law gets effectively amended without making it clear that you're doing that," said Hugh Spitzer, a law professor at the University of Washington.  

The court ruled that striking that provision didn't affect the overall functionality of the law, meaning the law still stands.

However, this is not necessarily a complete win for charter school advocates and there will likely be future battles over charter expansion, said Spitzer.

"It's important to emphasize that the court maintains its position that money from the common school fund, which is property tax money ... cannot be used for charter schools" he said. "And this will restrict over time, from a practical standpoint, the number of charter schools that will be funded by the state."

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Photo: Students and other charter school advocates rally in 2015 at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. The rally was held by "Act Now for Washington Students," with the goal of halting the closure of any charter schools that have already opened following the Supreme Court's 2016 decision. --Rachel La Corte/AP

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