Court Ruling, Teachers Strikes Complicate Start of School Year in Washington State

Published September 26, 2015

The school year for students in Washington State began in turmoil.

The Washington State Supreme Court (WSC) ruled the state’s charter school law is unconstitutional on September 4, and teachers unions voted to strike in Pasco and Seattle, leaving thousands of students out of school at the start of the academic year and parents scrambling to find childcare during the first two weeks of school.

Jami Lund, a senior policy analyst at the Freedom Foundation in Olympia, Washington, says the ruling against the state’s charter school law is based on a definition of “common schools” handed down in School District 20 vs. Bryan, a case that was decided in 1909.

The decision in Bryan led WSC to determine charters are not public schools, but experts say eliminating or clarifying the definition of “common schools” would allow the charter school law to stand. 

“The decision is tenuous,” said Lund. “Since so little precedent exists, the majority opinion writer had to rely on a precedent from more than 80 years ago that applied to a funding system that has been extinct for decades. They clearly had the decision in mind and built a wobbly bridge to that conclusion. The ramifications could justify striking down all expenditures that are not for this narrow definition of ‘common schools.'”

Passed by Ballot Initiative

Liv Finne, director of education studies at the Washington Policy Center, notes the charter school law passed by taxpayers through a ballot initiative in 2012 because they wanted serious educational reform, which the court has now denied them.

“Just as schools across Washington open their doors to students, the state Supreme Court placed school reform in serious jeopardy,” said Finne. “For technical reasons, the court struck down the charter school law passed by voters in 2012. The state teachers union, the Washington Education Association, which funded the lawsuit against the charter school law, celebrated the ruling.”

Finne says the state’s teachers unions have a stranglehold over education policy in Washington.

“The ruling has shocked and upset the parents and families of the 1,300 children enrolled in one of Washington’s nine new charter schools,” said Finne. “Questions are now being raised about union influence on the Supreme Court. Public records show seven of the nine Supreme Court judges took maximum contributions from the state teachers union during their election campaigns.

“Fortunately, the education of the 1,300 charter school children will proceed uninterrupted because private funding has been secured to keep these nine charter schools open for the rest of the school year,” Finne said.

Charter school advocates are calling on Gov. Jay Inslee (D) to call a special session of the legislature to make the technical fixes the court’s decision requires, but this work is more likely to happen during the next legislative session, beginning in January 2016, Finne says.

Illegal Strikes

Regarding the Pasco and Seattle teachers strikes, Lund said, Strikes are illegal in Washington, but the lack of consequences makes this a perennial problem. A taxpayer can’t refuse to pay taxes. A student cannot refuse to attend school. Legislators are in hot water with the Supreme Court for inadequately funding education. Why are union agitators the only party for whom the ‘paramount duty’ of the state can be shunted aside for mere personal gain?

“In addition to seeking money, many of the news stories report that the union negotiators are demanding to control significant public policy issues, like testing, curriculum, the schedule, management rights, and even big-class bonuses,” Lund said.

The Seattle strike disrupted the education of 53,000 students and forced working families to find alternative childcare arrangements. 

“Teachers strikes have hit traditional schools in Washington with renewed force this fall,” said Finne. “The Seattle teachers union was demanding a 21 percent increase in pay. Teachers in Pasco, a district in eastern Washington responsible for the education of 20,000 students, were also demanding large pay increases and had defied a court order to return to work.”

Agreements have since been reached in Pasco and Seattle, ending the strikes.

“Teachers strikes hit Washington’s schools with depressing regularity,” said Finne. “According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a student in Washington State is more likely to suffer from an illegal teachers strike than a student in any other state.”

Heather Kays ([email protected]) is a research fellow with The Heartland Institute and is managing editor of School Reform News.

Image by Joe Gratz. 

Internet Info

Liv Finne, “Seven state Supreme Court judges accepted WEA union campaign money,” Washington Policy Center, September 9, 2015:

Hanna Sanchez, “Washington State Supreme Court Rules Charter School Law Unconstitutional,”, September 8, 2015: