Charter Schools Go Back to the Drawing Board in Washington State

Charter schools in Washington state face an uncertain future, leaving roughly 1,300 children and their families wondering what to do.  

As eight of  nine new charter schools in the state navigate their first school year, the Washington Supreme Court upheld a decision that deemed the state’s charter school law unconstitutional.

Liv Finne, director of education at the Washington Policy Center, a free-market think tank, told The Daily Signal that the state’s attorney general, a bipartisan group of 10 legislators and four former attorney generals, among others, had filed papers to ask the state Supreme Court to reconsider a Sept. 4 decision.

The judges denied the motions with a 5-4 vote Nov. 19.

“That is a very flawed decision,” Finne said.

“The Supreme Court decision out of Washington state discounts the mountains of evidence that students do better when their parents have options,” Mary Clare Reim, an education policy researcher at The Heritage Foundation, told The Daily Signal.

The state’s highest court did remove a footnote in the earlier decision that raised questions about funds for other education programs in the state, The Seattle Times reported.

The footnote said the publicly funded charter schools violate the law because they are governed by appointed oversight boards and not elected school boards. This put into question the eligibility of other forms of alternative schools that receive state dollars.

Finne said there are many programs under the umbrella of public schools that are controlled by independent, private groups “just like the charter schools.”

“The judges did not anticipate this, but there was an immediate outcry in the press and among respected legal scholars here in Washington state saying the court decision is wrong,” Finne said.

She said the court’s ruling was “outstanding for its mean-spiritedness,” since the decision came directly after many students at charter schools testified Nov. 19 during a committee hearing in the state Senate.

“Summit Public Schools and other charters throughout the state are bringing a vital public school lifeline to underserved communities and students desperate for better opportunities,” Jen Davis Wickens, Summit’s chief regional officer, testified.

“In our last parent survey, 100 percent of Summit Sierra parents said they would recommend their school to other families. … Taking this choice away from them is absolutely not fair.”

Summit Sierra in Seattle, along with other charter schools in the state, opened in this past fall.

“I chose this school above other potential schooling options, because I felt like its learning environment was ideal for me,” Kai Worley-Flannell, a student at Summit Sierra High School, testified. “The traditional school system does not work for every student, and not every student can afford to go to a private school.”

He went on to say:

When I heard the news that charters had been deemed unconstitutional, I was saddened. School for us had been going on for about two weeks, and I had already made a few friends. My grades improved because the way the school teaches worked for me.

These public charter schools are revolutionizing the way education happens, and revolutionizing the way our state functions. … Our schools must stay open, so students like me can continue to flourish.

Washington voters passed a charter school initiative in 2012. Washington became the 42nd state to approve charter schools as an alternative to the regular public schools.

“It is disappointing that Washington is not following the example of the [41 other] states and the District of Columbia [that] have enacted charter school laws and seen incredible educational gains,” Heritage’s Reim said.

At the beginning of the 2015-2016 school year, public school teachers went on strike, leaving students home during the first few days of school.  

“Parents of children in Washington public schools desperately need options, especially in light of the public school teachers’ strike earlier this year that left 53,000 kids out of school,” Reim said.  “Teachers at Washington’s charter schools are showing up to work, even though it is unclear if they will get paid and unlikely they will have a job when this school year comes to a close.”

Washington charter schools received state funding for the fall. The decision to eliminate  funding is set to go into effect Dec. 14.

The charter schools have enough money, secured from a private donation, to operate through the current school year, The Daily Signal previously reported.

The Washington Education Association, the statewide teachers’ union, challenged the charter school law. Now union leaders hope the court’s decision will allow legislators to instead focus on funding for grades K-12 in regular public schools, The News Tribune reported.

As far as next steps for proponents of charter schools, and their students, the issue is expected to be one of the main issues when the state legislature convenes  Jan. 11, Finne said.

(Republicans control the state Senate, while Democrats control the House.

“I have been told by two leading Republicans in the House and in the Senate that there are enough votes, including Democrats in the House, to pass a charter school law,” Finne said.

She said the speaker of the House would have to allow a vote on such legislation, which eventually would have to survive a potential veto by Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat.

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