The latest court ruling regarding charter schools in Washington is a major victory for proponents of the system and should serve as a call for opponents to give up the fight. The focus now must turn toward improving outcomes for students throughout the state rather than continuing a counterproductive legal battle.
Judge John H. Chun of King County Superior Court ruled last month that the state’s current effort at supporting charter schools is, indeed, constitutional. This marked the latest declaration in a contentious issue that has been at the forefront since voters approved charter schools with 50.7 percent of the vote in 2012 (in Clark County, Initiative 1240 was approved by 52.3 percent of the electorate). For the good of the state, we hope it is the last ruling necessary in the battle.
Following that statewide vote, a coalition led by the state teachers’ union took the issue to court, arguing that charter schools are unconstitutional because those schools use public money without being governed by an elected school board. In 2015, days before the start of the school year, the state Supreme Court agreed, but the Legislature quickly passed a law in which charter schools became funded by lottery money rather than the General Fund.
Judge Chun provided a stamp of approval for that plan, dismissing the argument that charter schools are not part of the general public-school system because they are, indeed, beholden to the same academic requirements as other schools. He also said charter schools are accountable to elected officials because of the fashion in which they are authorized.
Charter schools long have been opposed by teachers’ unions out of fear that they will drain funding from public schools. But the idea has been supported by both major political parties as well as by advocates for education reform.
Most important, Washington’s system is designed to avoid some of the pitfalls that have hampered charter schools in some of the states — 43 at last count — that allow them. Here, schools must meet strict criteria for filling the needs of students who often are poorly served by traditional schools, and there are provisions for shutting down charter schools that do not live up to their stated purpose. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers has given high marks to Washington’s system because of those standards and accountability.
In addition, the voter-approved measure allows for a maximum of 40 charter schools to begin operations over a five-year span. Thus far, eight are up and running, serving about 1,600 students. In a state that has more than 1 million public-school students spread over 295 districts, charter schools have generated a disproportionate amount of angst.
In truth, charter schools offer an important opportunity for the state to cultivate ideas about how best to educate students from low-income areas or those who struggle with traditional educational methods. In part because of their small size, charter schools possess flexibility and can readily adjust to the needs of students. And, again, if they are unsuccessful, they will not remain in existence.
The fact is that one size does not fit all when it comes to education, and many students for far too long have been left behind in a system marked by rigidity. Because of that, the latest court decision is a victory not only for charter-school proponents, but for the students of Washington. The hope now is that those who oppose charter schools will come to recognize that as well.