After a statewide vote, a Supreme Court ruling, legislative action, and gubernatorial inaction, charter schools are legal in Washington. For now.
And while the matter likely is far from settled, it is appropriate at this point to question the vociferous opposition to charter schools that routinely comes from the Washington Education Association. It is time to question what almost certainly will be additional legal wrangling as opponents are expected to return the issue to the courts.
In 2012, the electorate narrowly approved charter schools with 50.7 percent of the vote (in Clark County, Initiative 1240 received 52.3 percent approval). That resulted in legal challenges, and in September, the state Supreme Court ruled such schools unconstitutional because they receive public funding but are not governed by elected boards beholden to taxpayers. Lawmakers this year passed what they hope is a solution, and last week Gov. Jay Inslee allowed the bill to become law by declining to take action before the April 1 deadline.
It was the first time in 34 years that a Washington governor has allowed a bill to become law without signing it. A veto would have closed eight existing charter schools that serve about 1,100 students (none in Clark County), and Inslee said “despite my deep reservations about the weakness of the taxpayer accountability provisions, I will not close schools.” Inslee’s decision to take action by taking no action represented the difficulty of his position. Vetoing the bill would have closed the charter school system; signing it would have incurred the wrath of teachers’ unions, a reliable constituency for the governor and Democratic lawmakers.
Inslee has noted that he is not certain the new law will survive legal challenges. By directing $18 million from the Washington Opportunities Pathways account — a euphemism for state lottery money — and replacing that with money from the general fund, lawmakers have attempted an end run around the court’s concerns. Meanwhile, all of this raises questions about the Washington Education Association’s battle against charter schools, a battle often drawn along politically partisan lines. For Washington’s new law, all Clark County Republican lawmakers voted in favor while all local Democrats were opposed.
Such partisanship seems odd. In 2014, in recognition of National Charter Schools Week, President Obama said: “We pay tribute to the role our nation’s public charter schools play in advancing opportunity, and we salute the parents, educators, community leaders, policymakers, and philanthropists who gave rise to the charter school sector.” The 2012 Democratic Party Platform reads: “The Democratic Party understands the importance of turning around struggling public schools. We will continue to strengthen all our schools and work to expand public school options for low-income youth, including magnet schools, charter schools, teacher-led schools, and career academies.” And the National Education Association writes: “NEA is committed to advocating on behalf of educators, parents and students in charter schools that help drive innovative educational practices that can be reproduced broadly in schools across the nation.”
Charter schools are not a panacea for public education, yet they deserve an opportunity to grow and flourish in Washington. With support from voters and lawmakers and tacit approval from the governor, the time has come to develop a thriving charter school system rather than drag the issue back into the courts.