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Teachers' Union in Washington State Challenges Charters in Court

A legal challenge to Washington state's new law allowing charter schools has been filed by a state teachers' union along with a coalition of other groups concerned about the constitutionality of the measure approved by voters last November.

The Washington Education Association's complaint was filed with state Attorney General Bob Ferguson on Feb. 27, and asks the Evergreen State's top lawyer to investigate and "promptly institute legal proceedings to remedy the constitutional violations" within the charter school law, which was passed as Initiative 1240 on Nov. 6 and would allow up to 40 charter schools to open in the state over the next five years. (Three previous attempts to get voters to approve a charter-school law failed in Washington state.)

The complaint from the coalition, which also includes the League of Women Voters of Washington and El Centro de la Raza, a Seattle-based group "dedicated to social justice," includes the argument that the new charter law violates the state constitution because it interferes with the state's "paramount duty" to provide for public education in the state. How so? The coalition argues that the state is already under a 2012 order from the state Supreme Court to overhaul its K-12 funding system, but that, "The Charter School Act interferes with the state's progress toward compliance by diverting already insufficient resources away from public school districts."

Six other complaints are registered in the letter to Ferguson, including the argument that Initiative 1240 amended state law in a matter not permitted by the state constitution, and the argument that since charter schools are exempt from many regulations governing public schools, they violate the provision in the constitution requiring "general and uniform" public education in the state. The letter also claims that funds will be diverted from "public common schools" to "private charter schools."

That last phrase is a tricky one, in that Washington's Initiative 1240 allowed only non-profit operators to run the new charter schools, and only non-profit groups can be contracted with for "management operation" of charter schools in the state. In the coalition's letter, the group references "private non-profits" as the cause for concern in terms of who runs the charters, so those may be the ultimate target of that portion of the group's complaint.

In any case, the phrase "private charter schools" is anathema to charter advocates, who often reiterate to audiences the fact that charter schools by definition are public schools, although they can become more controversial when for-profit operators run them.

Voters approved Initiative 1240 by a narrow margin, 51 percent to 49 percent, in the last election in November.

But as the Associated Press reported Feb. 28, Ferguson said in a statement that the voters' decision would be the most important factor in his response: "We all share the desire to provide the highest quality education for our children. As the state's attorney, it's my responsibility to defend the will of the voters and I will be directing my legal team to do so in this case."

The AP reported that if the Ferguson doesn't conduct an investigation and take action against the charter law, the groups will file their own lawsuit.

Charters Vs. McKenna

When I covered the campaigns in Washington for the governor's position and charters last October, Washington Education Association members told me that while they were determined to defeat a charter school initiative for a fourth time, they were equally if not more concerned about the prospect of Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna defeating their preferred (and ultimately victorious) candidate, Democrat Jay Inslee.

The argument I heard was that the long-term effects of McKenna's could be just as damaging to their cause it not more so. One reason for that concern is they felt McKenna could attack collective bargaining rights in the manner of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican. (Of course, they also disliked his support for charters.) But this complaint shows that they haven't resigned themselves to charters even though they helped get Inslee elected.

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