An “Unconscionable Decision”: League of Women Voters et al., v. State of Washington
Late last Thursday, the Washington Supreme Court denied all motions to reconsider its decision in a case last month that sent shockwaves through the state’s charter schools. Just earlier that day, about 400 students, parents, and educators rallied near the state capitol to encourage lawmakers to pass emergency legislation to protect their schools, which currently serve nearly 1,300 students.
With this final decision, Washington joins the eight other states which do not have some sort of public charter school law in place; 6,500 charter schools now exist across the rest of the country, providing educational options for roughly 2.5 million students.
Charter schools’ greater autonomy provides a breeding ground for the innovative teaching models that provide students an alternative to the one-size-fits-all traditional public school model where not all students learn equally well. For example, many charter schools have the ability to innovate in areas like staffing, curriculum construction and scheduling.
Unfortunately, last month’s decision, and last Thursday’s double-down, has put Washington’s charter schools at risk. The Washington Supreme Court claimed charter schools violate a state constitutional provision requiring a “general and uniform system of public schools.” The court claimed charter schools are not “common schools,” which fall under the regulatory authority of local school boards, and ruled that the money spent on charters was a violation of the mandate for certain funds to be spent only within the common school system.
As the dissent points out, however, the expenditures for charter schools did not come from a segregated “common school” pot, but from the general fund. This line of reasoning, taken to its logical end, bars any kind of spending from the general fund on non-common school items, such as roads or bridges.
Some hope remains for Washington’s charter schools, however, which continue to operate and serve parents and children despite the uncertainty. The legislature could change the funding provisions that were at issue in the decision, and find a different way to keep the doors of charter schools open in Washington.
As Representative Eric Pettigrew, the only African-American legislator in Washington, wrote in an op-ed for The Olympian, “These families just wanted the same quality education as children and families from more affluent backgrounds. Instead, they got a raw deal.” The Washington Supreme Court’s decision restricts parents’ ability to choose the best option for their children, particularly those parents who cannot afford to send their children to a private school or buy a house in a better-performing school district.
This decision and the one that preceded it last month are a blow to Washington’s charter schools and the students and parents they serve. If the legislature does not find a work-around, it will be to the detriment of the students of Washington State.