School Choice & Charters

Washington’s Embattled Charter School Law Heads to State Supreme Court Again

By Arianna Prothero — December 19, 2017 2 min read
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The Washington State Supreme Court will hear a challenge to the state’s charter school law for the second time in less than four years.

The state’s high court ruled the charter law unconstitutional in fall 2015, but it was resurrected six months later by the state legislature.

Washington’s charter school legal saga matters beyond the state for a few reasons.

It was the first time in the country that a state supreme court ruled wholesale against a charter law.

Washington state was also a late adopter of charter schools and many charter advocates (although certainly not all) see the state’s law as among the most evolved in the country—one that avoids many of the issues that have arisen from too little regulation seen in states that legalized charter schools early on.

And the legal fight over the constitutionality of charter funding in the state could provide a roadmap for charter opponents in other states. The Southern Poverty Law Center announced a similarly-styled challenge to Mississippi’s charter schools in 2016.

The Washington Charter School Saga

It’s been quite the political odyssey for the state’s charter law which first passed by voter referendum in 2012. The law was challenged by a statewide teachers union as well as the Washington League of Women Voters, among others.

The state supreme court sided with the plaintiffs in fall 2015, ruling that charter schools were unconstitutional.

The justices determined 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 general fund.

Charter school supporters quickly rallied and muscled a bill through the state legislature in spring 2016 that changed the funding source and imposed more regulations on charter schools, among other things.

During that period in limbo, the state’s eight charter schools remained open as specialized district programs and home-schooling centers. They converted back to charter status the following school year.

But it wasn’t long before the revamped law was challenged.

The move didn’t come as a surprise. The Washington Education Association, which was a plaintiff in the first lawsuit, signaled soon after the legislature resurrected the charter law that there would be another lawsuit.

The union and other plaintiffs argue that the charter law still diverts crucial public dollars away from traditional district schools. Although that argument is often used against charter schools in other states, it’s important to put the Washington case in context. 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.

The legislature’s slow pace in acting on the McCleary ruling has led to the high court to levy a daily $100,000 fine on 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. —Rachel La Corte/AP

A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.