In Our View: WEA Targets Initiative 1240

Union's challenge to charter schools seems to ignore message of the voters

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As expected, the teachers union has filed a legal challenge to Washington's new charter school law, Initiative 1240, which was approved by voters last fall. The Washington Education Association was joined by the League of Women Voters of Washington and El Centro de la Raza last week in filing a "legal demand" with the state attorney general, complaining that I-1240 is unconstitutional on several grounds.These groups certainly are within their rights to take this matter to the courts. Everyone on both sides of this issue knew the legal challenge would come. But as we see it, the groups will be hard-pressed to convince any judicial authority that charter schools should not be allowed in Washington. Start with the fact that the people want charter schools. The initiative passed in a diverse assortment of urban and rural communities, gaining approval in 11 counties west of the Cascades and seven counties in the eastern half of the state.

As for the initiative's constitutionality, the teachers union seems to come up short on several contentions.

One argument cited in a WEA news release last week is that charter schools divert "already insufficient resources away from public school districts." But as Liz Finne of the Washington Policy Center wrote last September in a Citizens' Guide to Initiative 1240, charter schools "do not take funding away from the public education system. Students attending a charter school would be entitled to the same funding they would receive if they attended a conventional public school. … The level of per-student education funding would remain the same."

In fact, I-1240 actually "would increase funding at existing public schools that convert to charter schools." Such converted schools would receive "96 percent of the public education funding to which its students are entitled. In contrast, local public schools on average receive only about 80 percent, with central administrators retaining 20 percent." In charter schools, administrative costs are limited.

Another complaint by WEA is that I-1240 "unconstitutionally diverts funding that is restricted to use for public common schools to private charter schools that are not subject to local voter control." Finne, though, reminds us that charter schools "are public schools; they are tuition free and open to all students." As for local voter control, I-1240 "makes no changes in the way school boards are elected or the way conventional public schools are administered," Finne wrote. Charter schools "would be authorized by locally elected school boards or by a state commission appointed by elected representatives."

The language of the initiative, WEA contends, is "unconstitutionally vague." But our review of the document reveals it as thoroughly addressing all pertinent issues, based on research from charter school programs in 41 states. Finne claims that "no state has repealed its charter school law," and there are long lines of students trying to get into public charter schools. Part of that appeal is substantiated by numerous studies showing, according to Finne, that "allowing a limited number of charter schools within public education would improve learning outcomes, reduce the dropout rate and open new learning opportunities for children, especially in communities that are underserved by the current education system."

Of course, those noteworthy goals are not typically the main focus of the teachers union. Promotion of the union is paramount. We trust that reality will reveal itself in any legal challenge.