Washington Charter Opponents Turn to Lawsuit

Published December 3, 2013

The first-ever charter school law in Washington state has come under fire from a coalition arguing the voter-approved measure is unconstitutional.

The law allows for 40 charter schools to open over a period of five years. Applications to start charter schools would be approved by a state-level commission or the local district if the district receives authorization from the state board of education.

After a bill failed in the legislature, the initiative landed on the ballot last fall, where it inched past the opposition. Charter opponents have fought it every step of the way.

“One of the biggest problems with this new act is it will take money away from existing public schools in Washington at a time when the state supreme court has already ruled that the state legislature is failing to fulfill its paramount duty to amply fund education in our state,” said Rich Wood, spokesperson for the Washington Education Association, part of a coalition suing the state.

A judge heard arguments in November, and hasn’t yet issued a ruling.

Charters Are Public Schools
Charter schools are public schools and can’t take money out of the public school system, notes Liv Finne, director of education studies at the Washington Policy Institute, which is not involved in the lawsuit.

“Charter schools will be educating public school students,” she said. “Charter schools are just another program within public schooling.”

Finne mentioned other public school programming outside the traditional system, such as magnet schools, STEM schools, and arts schools.

“All those schools would then have to be closed down, because they are taking money from the traditional schools to run these innovative school programs,” she said.

Accountability Fight
The plaintiffs, including the League of Women Voters, El Centro de la Raza, Washington Association of School Administrators, WEA, and some individuals, argue charter schools won’t be accountable to local taxpayers, who can influence traditional public schools by attending local school board meetings, Wood said.

“A new, unelected charter school commission, an unelected body that will be authorizing these charter schools—there’s no way for a voter to have any real influence and say in these decisions, as opposed to when a local school board is making these decisions,” he said.

Members of the state charter school commission, the state-level authorizing authority, are appointed by elected officials, providing some level of voter accountability, Finne said.

In addition, local school districts can become charter school authorizers, and voters unhappy with the education provided at charter schools can send their children to traditional public schools, Finne said.

“It’s my job to defend the will of the voters,” said Attorney General Bob Ferguson, in a statement. “We made a strong case supporting the constitutionality of the charter school initiative. Now we will wait for the judge’s decision.”

Intervening on behalf of the defendants were the League of Education Voters, the Washington State Charter Schools Association, and sponsors of the ballot initiative.

Image by Camknows.