A lawsuit filed last week in an attempt to scuttle Washington’s charter-school system was inevitable — and yet it is disappointing. A coalition led by the Washington Education Association — the state’s teachers union — is asking the courts to overturn the Legislature’s solution to the ongoing debate over charter schools. In the process, it has further muddied the waters of school funding in the state.
In 2012, 50.7 percent of statewide voters approved the establishment of charter schools (in Clark County, 52.3 percent approved). Last year, around the time the school year was starting, the state Supreme Court deemed that unconstitutional because charter schools are funded with public money but are not governed by elected boards. That threatened to force the closure of Washington’s eight charter schools, which serve about 1,200 students. The Legislature came to the rescue this year, passing a plan designed to save the schools, and Gov. Jay Inslee allowed the bill to become law by neither signing it nor vetoing it. “Despite my deep reservations about the weakness of the taxpayer accountability provisions, I will not close schools,” Inslee said at the time.
There are, indeed, questions about the Legislature’s end run around the Supreme Court ruling. The new law provides funding for charter schools through the Washington Opportunities Pathways account — a euphemism for lottery money — and then backfills that money in the general fund. If general-fund money cannot be used for charter schools, as determined by the Supreme Court, then there is reason to doubt the legality of lawmaker’s solution.
But the bottom line is that voters have expressed a desire to give charter schools a chance in Washington, as more than 40 other states have done. Charter schools — and the students they serve — deserve an opportunity to grow and thrive as a reasonable alternative to traditional schools.
That is why a persistent attempt by public-school teachers to prevent charter schools is so disappointing. The platforms adopted this summer by the major political parties both express support for charter schools; and the National Education Association in the past has written: “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.” For teachers in Washington, their blind insistence that traditional public schools have all the answers for curing the ills of public education is a demeaning example of putting self-serving politics ahead of the needs of students.
Washington’s charter-school law was meticulously devised to assist students in low-income areas who often are poorly served by public schools. It includes provisions that require each school to demonstrate its effectiveness or face closure. And it provides for an alternative that, as the NEA says, can “drive innovative educational practices.”
Certainly, there are more pressing issues facing education in the state. The Legislature’s failure to address the Supreme Court ruling in McCleary v. Washington has represented a dereliction of duty. And while lawmakers deserve to be taken to task over that issue, persistent lawsuits against a relatively minor charter-school law only serve as a distraction from the larger goal.
Students, parents, administrators and, yes, even teachers in Washington would be better served if the focus remained on funding K-12 education while allowing the charter-school experiment to play out on its own.