Last week’s ruling from the state Supreme Court that charter schools are constitutional should finally allow such schools to fully fulfill their mission for the benefit of Washington students.
Charter schools can offer worthy alternatives for students who are not well-served by traditional public schools. Notably, Washington’s voter-approved system includes provisions requiring demonstrable results while allowing for underperforming schools to be closed down. But it has been difficult to cull information about the effectiveness of the system during a lengthy court battle. The court ruling should inspire critics of the system to step back and work to improve charter schools rather than fight to close them down.
Voters approved charter schools in 2012 with 50.7 percent of the statewide vote (in Clark County, Initiative 1240 was supported by 52 percent of voters), allowing for up to 40 schools eventually to be opened. The Washington State Charter Schools Association lists 12 schools that have been approved — none in Clark County — and this year they are serving about 3,400 students.
The system has grown slowly, in part because of uncertainty created by legal wrangling. Teachers, civil-right groups and others have opposed charter schools, arguing in part that the schools violate state law because they are not overseen by an elected school board that is beholden to voters.
A complex Supreme Court ruling brings an end to that argument, with Justice Mary Yu writing in the lead opinion, “In sum, charter schools are not rendered unconstitutional just because they do not operate identically to common schools.” The court did strike down a provision that inhibited the ability of charter school employees to unionize.
The ruling also allowed to let stand some legislative finagling that took place in 2016. After the Supreme Court ruled that the charter school law was unconstitutional because it diverted money that otherwise would go to traditional public schools, the Legislature approved the use of lottery revenue to support the schools.
The latest ruling should be the final word on charter schools in Washington and turn attention toward improving the system rather than scuttling it.
Charter schools offer alternative learning plans and provide options for students who have difficulty fitting in with traditional education. That might not be necessary in areas with excellent schools that are well-funded, attract top-notch teachers and can offer alternatives alongside the typical curriculum, but it can be particularly helpful in low-income areas or regions with large minority populations. Washington’s charter school law gives preference to such locales, improving the chances that students eventually graduate high school and seek post-secondary education.
That is the theory, at least, but the lengthy legal wrangling has limited opportunities to test it. Allowing the system to stabilize and grow in accordance with the law will provide for the accumulation of data that either support or disprove that theory. Either way, it is time for Washington to examine which charter schools are most effective and to develop practices that can be copied elsewhere.
Legislators and critics must take that approach next year. The charter school system has been approved by voters and upheld by the courts. The focus now must turn toward what works best for students.