New lawsuit targets Washington State charter schools

Washington State charter schools once again face an existential threat.

Ever since the state Legislature passed its response to a state Supreme Court ruling that threatened to put charters out of business, the teachers union and other critics had hinted they’d be back in court. They’d asked the state attorney general’s office to investigate the constitutionality of legislation intended to keep charter schools open. In June, when the attorney general declined, it was only a matter of time before a lawsuit would materialize. On Wednesday, it did.

The teachers unions and other plaintiffs (including a range of labor groups and the League of Women Voters) are attempting to preserve the first-ever high court ruling finding charter schools unconstitutional. The legislative fix shifted state funding for charter schools from the state’s general fund — which the high court ruled could not go to charters — to a pool of money raised by the state lottery. The plaintiffs call that a “shell game,” and want the court to strike it down. They also want the court to condemn a stopgap maneuver employed by some charters to keep funding flowing after the high court found them unconstitutional.

But the case also includes a broader attack on the new definition of public education. In their complaint, the plaintiffs argue:

[T]he Charter School Act violates the general and uniform requirement of article IX, section 2 of the [Washington state c]onstitution because, inter alia, charter schools eliminate the local voter control that was – and remains – a hallmark of public schools, thereby resulting in different, non-uniform governance for charter schools. Charter schools are also non-uniform in that they do not offer every child the same advantages or subject them to the same discipline as every other child in Washington public schools and, thus, charter schools are not required to offer students a constitutionally sufficient education.

In other words, they argue public schooling options that are not wholly controlled by local elected school boards, and not subject to the same regulations as district-run public schools, would violate the state constitution. In some ways, this echoes a 2006 Florida Supreme Court ruling, which found a private school voucher program violated a constitutional requirement for the state to provide a uniform system of public schools, and aims to apply similar reasoning to public charter schools.

The state’s charter school association says it plans to intervene in the case to preserve what it feels is one of the strongest charter laws in the nation.

Our state’s new charter public school law is the product of the Legislature’s bipartisan effort to save our state’s charter public schools – schools designed to address equity and opportunity gaps for students of color and from low-income backgrounds whose families are seeking better public education options. We are confident that the bipartisan law passed by the Legislature meets the constitutional threshold laid out by the courts. We are disappointed that any organization would be interested in blindly closing public school doors on students who are finally thriving.

Washington’s original charter law passed to implement a referendum approved by voters who wanted new options outside their traditional public school system. Upending those efforts could have implications beyond the dozen charter schools that would suddenly be forced to shutter. That makes this is a school choice case worth watching.

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