In Our View: Charting a New Course

Charter schools aim to enhance state's public education, not detract from it

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Although it's likely the state Supreme Court eventually will have to weigh in, Washington's budding charter school system received a green light last week from King County Judge Jean Rietschel.

There was one small glitch for proponents of charter schools, as Rietschel ruled that one portion of the law passed by voters in 2012 is unconstitutional. She declared that charter schools can't be defined as "common schools" because they are not under the control of voters in a school district. According to the state Constitution, schools must be under the control of voters in their district to be considered part of the state system and to obtain state construction funding.

But that would seem to present a minor roadblock, leading Lisa Macfarlane of the Washington State Charter Schools Association to declare: "This doesn't stop the freight train that's moving forward."

That train will be interesting to watch as it picks up steam. Statewide voters had rejected charter schools in 1996, 2000, and 2004 before providing narrow approval in the 2012 general election. Initiative 1240 passed with 50.7 percent of the vote (in Clark County, it was approved by 52.3 percent of voters), providing for the establishment of eight schools a year beginning in 2014, up to a maximum of 40 statewide. A total of 22 charter school applications have been submitted thus far, with none of them coming from Clark County. For those that pass muster, a lottery will determine which eight will be allowed to proceed, with plans to open next fall.

There remains much debate over the effectiveness of charter schools and the wisdom of having the public pay for schools that largely are divorced from the public school system. The cacophony of that debate can be found in the power brokers who are still arguing over the issue. The plaintiffs in the case that led to last week's court ruling included the Washington Education Association, the Washington Association of School Administrators, and the League of Women Voters. During the signature-gathering process and the campaigning that led to last year's passage of the law, Bill Gates donated $3 million in support of charter schools, and fellow Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen donated $1.5 million, placing them among several high-profile figures who entered the fray. In the end, Washington became the 42nd state to approve charter schools.

Not that all the issues have been resolved. In addition to questioning the definition of "common schools," the plaintiffs claimed charter schools circumvented the Legislature's mandate to provide "basic education," as defined by law and the state Supreme Court. But Judge Rietschel ruled that the charter statute contains state standards and guidelines that schools must meet. There also are provisions that put the state superintendent's office in charge of funding, teacher certification and student assessment for charter schools.

Certainly, no educational system is perfect, and there is no catch-all solution for the shortcomings of public education. But, as The Columbian noted editorially in supporting last year's ballot measure: "The positives that would be brought about by passage of I-1240 outweigh the negatives, and the structure of the initiative goes to great lengths to enhance the strengths of charter schools while minimizing the drawbacks."

It's likely that Washington's charter schools will face additional review from the state's courts. But the language of the law was carefully structured to allow charter schools to enhance the state's public education rather than detract from it.