Washington lawmakers should add another item to their long to-do list for next year — bring charter schools into compliance with the state constitution.
Last week, the state Supreme Court declined requests to revisit its ruling that charter schools were unconstitutional. Five justices opted not to reconsider the decision, while three voted in favor and Justice Mary Yu said she would revisit the portion of the ruling regarding charter school funding.
In 2012, voters passed Initiative 1240, with 50.7 percent approving the establishment of charter schools in the state. The measure allowed for up to 40 such schools to open over a five-year period, and a total of nine charter schools are operating this year while serving about 1,200 students. No charter schools have yet been approved for Clark County.
After spending more than a year deliberating over challenges to the law, the Supreme Court issued a ruling against charter schools. Leaning upon a 1909 decision as precedence, justices determined that charter schools are not “common schools” because they are governed by an appointed board rather than an elected one, and therefore are not eligible for public funding.
The decision to let that ruling stand came despite the urging of state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, four former attorneys general and a bipartisan group of legislators. And, as Philip Talmadge, a former state Supreme Court justice and former state legislator, wrote for The (Tacoma) News Tribune, the reliance upon the 1909 decision as precedence was questionable: “At that point in history, kindergarten often did not exist, nor did specialized educational programs. Many school districts did not have high schools! . . . Our state constitution says that the ‘public school system shall include common schools and such high schools, normal schools, and technical schools as may hereafter be established.’ ”
Despite those arguments, the court was wise not to bow to political expediency; if the law is unconstitutional, then it’s unconstitutional. But lawmakers should act quickly to make the necessary adjustments when they convene in January. First of all, charter schools are the will of the voters. Secondly, in approving charter schools, Washington became the 42nd state to allow them. There seems to be little reason the state cannot learn from other parts of the country and embrace charter systems that work well while eschewing those that do not.
Proponents say charter schools provide an effective alternative for students who are not well-served by traditional schools. And on the same day the court announced its decision to not review the case, a group of about 300 charter school students visited with a legislative committee to plead their case. Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, said: “Many students of poverty and color, who have felt disenfranchised and disconnected by our traditional schools, are seeing tremendous results at these schools.”
Getting the Legislature to act on charter schools might be easier said than done. The Legislature is divided, with Democrats having a majority in the House of Representatives and Republicans holding control in the Senate, and lawmakers had a difficult time agreeing to much of anything during this year’s session. With I-1240 passing by a narrow margin among voters, it is reasonable to expect a similar divide in the Capitol, and teacher’s unions and other groups are staunchly opposed to charter schools.
But in the end, lawmakers should be beholden to what is best for students — and that means a well-managed charter school system.