recent ruling in King County Superior Court provided a bit of clarity for Washington’s muddy battle over charter schools. More important, it signaled to opponents of such schools that students would be better served if a cease-fire were to be called and Washingtonians could fully focus upon educating students.
Since 2012, when Washington approved the establishment of charter schools with 50.7 percent of statewide ballots (in Clark County, 52.3 percent approved), the issue has been a political football. Under staunch opposition from the Washington Education Association — the state’s teachers union — the state Supreme Court ruled in the fall of 2015 that the charter schools approved by voters were unconstitutional. That was because the schools received public funding but were not governed by elected school boards beholden to taxpayers.
The Legislature performed an end-run around the ruling, designating funding from the Washington Opportunities Pathways account — a euphemism for lottery money — to support charter schools while backfilling that money in the general fund. A coalition of groups filed suit to challenge that plan, which led to the Nov. 18 court ruling.
In the decision, King County Superior Court Judge John H. Chun dismissed two of the primary arguments against charter schools, rejecting an attempt to tie those facilities to the state’s failure to fully fund public schools, and rejecting a challenge to the Legislature’s action. He also determined that several plaintiffs, including the Washington Federation of State Employees, did not have standing in the case.
One reasonable interpretation of all this would be that the teacher’s union should drop its legal challenges and allow Washington to seamlessly move forward with charter schools — as more than 40 other states have. The amendment adopted by voters in 2012 provides students and parents with options that benefit students who might be poorly served by traditional public schools, and the view that only traditional schools harbor the ability to effectively educate those students smacks of arrogance.
Both major political parties expressed support for charter schools in their platforms at this summer’s conventions, with Democrats writing, “We support democratically governed, great neighborhood public schools and high-quality public charter schools, and we will help them disseminate best practices to other school leaders and educators.” In September, the U.S. Department of Education awarded $6.9 million to be doled out over three years to assist Washington’s charter schools. This would seem to leave Washington teachers on an island when it comes to opposing such schools.
The state’s charter school measure allows for up to 40 schools to be opened over a span of five years, and it contains safeguards that allow for individual schools to be shuttered if they cannot demonstrate effectiveness. Eight charter schools are operating in the state, with three more scheduled to open in 2017.
There is no guarantee that those schools will be a panacea for education in the state, but it is important that Washington residents be given the opportunity to assess their effectiveness. Continued court battles only distract from the need to provide quality education and the recognition that different students require varied educational opportunities.
If educating students is the goal — as it should be — the focus must remain on best serving students rather than engaging in politically motivated distractions.