Law & Courts

Washington State Charters May Get a Second Chance

By Arianna Prothero — March 21, 2016 4 min read
Washington state senators watch vote tallies at the statehouse in Olympia on a bill that would revamp the state’s charter school law. The measure seeks to revive the state’s fledgling charter school sector six months after the state Supreme Court ruled the original charter law unconstitutional. The bill awaits action by Gov. Jay Inslee.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Lawmakers in Washington state have passed a bill to resuscitate the state’s fledgling charter school sector six months after the state’s supreme court ruled the original law was unconstitutional.

It was the first time that a state’s high court has ruled wholesale against a charter law.

While charter school advocates celebrated the hard-fought victory they squeezed out of the legislature in the twilight of the regular session, several lawmakers in both chambers raised the specter of a second legal challenge, saying they’re not sure the revised law would pass constitutional muster.

But before the new measure even meets that test, it must first get past Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee.

Charter advocates said they are optimistic the governor will not veto a bill that won bipartisan approval, even though he has not been a strong charter supporter. If the measure becomes law, the state’s nine charters—which have stayed open as specialized district programs and home-schooling centers—will be able to reopen again as charter schools in time for the 2016-17 school year.

Washington state’s charter school law has had a short and tumultuous history.

First passed by voter referendum in 2012, the charter law was struck down by the state’s supreme court last fall. The court ruled that charters did not qualify as “common” schools—basically, public schools—because they are not overseen by locally elected school boards and, therefore, were not eligible to draw money from the state’s general fund.

A bill championed by advocates to revive the charter law by creating a new funding source for charters, the Opportunity Pathways Account, was passed by the Republican-controlled Senate in January. But it stalled in the House education committee until a Democratic lawmaker used a procedural maneuver to resuscitate it and bring it to the House floor before the end of the session.

The bill cleared the House on a bipartisan vote, 58-39, and then passed the Senate on a vote of 26-23 on the last day of the session.

Passing Legal Muster

However, while voting, several Democratic lawmakers said that without addressing the fact that charter schools are overseen by non-elected boards, the measure to retool the law wouldn’t likely withstand the scrutiny of the state Supreme Court.

“It tries to pretend that the only thing that was going on here was that the money was coming out of the wrong account and that’s all we need to do to fix it,” Jamie Pedersen, a Democrat, said during the Senate vote. “I ... expect we will be seeing it again when it comes back from the Supreme Court.”

In its decision in League of Women Voters v. Washington, the state high court ruled that charters are not common schools because they are overseen by appointed boards, much like a nonprofit organization, which is one of the major differences between charter and regular district schools nationally.

Under Washington’s original law, charter schools could be authorized by school districts, as well as by a specially created statewide authorizing board which was made up of appointed members from the state’s business, academic, and nonprofit communities.

The measure to revamp the law would reinstate the statewide authorizing commission and add new members: the chair of the state board of education, and the state superintendent, who is elected.

“It helps to shore up the sector against any potential legal action down the road, that there are now these elected officials that are also on that charter commission and are overseeing the performance of the charter sector,” said Thomas Franta, the chief executive officer of the Washington State Charter School Association.

The new measure would also bar charter schools from accessing local levy funding and district schools from converting into charters, provisions unpopular with charter advocates.

Despite those concessions, lawmakers and other groups that oppose charter schools argued that the effort to restore the law has been a distraction from more pressing issues—namely, funding for the rest of the public education system.

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. Last August, it declared the legislature in contempt of court, and levied a daily $100,000 fine on the state.

Bigger Funding Challenges

Although Gov. Inslee signed a bill last month committing lawmakers to design and approve a plan for satisfying the court next year, many, including Randy Dorn, the state’s superintendent, have accused lawmakers of punting on the issue.

“There’s quite a bit of disappointment with the legislature’s decision to continue to delay complying with the McCleary decision and to instead spend time on this charter school law,” said Richard Wood, a spokesman for the Washington Education Association.

Wood said the coalition of organizations that brought the original lawsuit against the charter school law, including the WEA, has not decided whether to challenge the retooled measure if it becomes law.

If they do, they might prevail a second time, said Hugh Spitzer, a law professor at the University of Washington.

“It’s possible that the opponents of this revised charter school system will be able to successfully argue that these charter schools are still not compliant with the general and uniform requirement” of the constitution, which was an argument the supreme court didn’t fully address the first time around, Spitzer said.

Many state constitutions compel the state to provide a single and uniform system of public schools, a requirement that is often used to bring legal challenges to school choice programs.

Coverage of issues related to creating opportunities for all American students and their families to choose a quality school is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at waltonk12.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 23, 2016 edition of Education Week as Wash. Charter Schools May Get Second Chance

Events

Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Chronic Teacher Shortage: Where Do We Go From Here?  
Join Peter DeWitt, Michael Fullan, and guests for expert insights into finding solutions for the teacher shortage.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Science Webinar
Close the Gender Gap: Getting Girls Excited about STEM
Join female STEM leaders as they discuss the importance of early cheerleaders, real life role models, and female networks of support.
Content provided by Logitech
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
Mission Possible: Saving Time While Improving Student Outcomes
Learn how district leaders are maximizing instructional time and finding the best resources for student success through their MTSS framework.
Content provided by Panorama Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts Some Schools Will Get Money From Opioid Settlements—But It Won't Be Easy
Conflicts and unanswered questions stymie schools' efforts to secure a share of recent legal settlements from opioid makers.
6 min read
Pills of the painkiller hydrocodone at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt., on Feb. 19, 2013.
In this 2013 file photo, hydrocodone pills—an opioid—are seen at a Vermont pharmacy. School districts are arguing that the nation's opioid crisis has directly affected them through increased costs for special education and overdose-prevention efforts.
Toby Talbot/AP
Law & Courts Supreme Court Asks for Biden Administration's Views on Legal Status of Charter Schools
Stemming from a suit over a North Carolina school's dress code, the issue is whether "public" charter schools act with government authority.
3 min read
Thunder storm sky over the United States Supreme Court building in Washington DC.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Law & Courts West Virginia Law Barring Transgender Girls From School Sports Upheld by Federal Judge
The decision is a turnabout for the judge, who cast doubt on the law in 2021 and issued an order allowing a transgender girl to compete.
4 min read
Judge gavel on law books with statue of justice and court government background. concept of law, justice, legal.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Law & Courts A Teacher Argued His MAGA Hat Was Protected Speech. Here's What a Federal Appeals Court Said
Did a principal violate a teacher's rights when she told him not to bring his Donald Trump-inspired hat to a racial-sensitivity training?
4 min read
Image of a gavel
iStock/Getty