State Supreme Court rules charter school law is unconstitutional; search for legislative fix begins

Friday’s state Supreme Court ruling (6-3) striking down the state charter school law stunned parents, teachers, students and charter school supporters. The timing seemed as bad as the decision. Coming at the beginning of the school year, the ruling casts into doubt the academic plans of hundreds of students, creating anxiety and uncertainty requiring swift resolution.

From the court:

The portions ofl-1240 designating charter schools as common schools violate article IX, section 2 of the Washington Constitution and are invalid. For the same reason, the portions ofl-1240 providing access to restricted common school funding are also invalid. These provisions are not severable and render the entire Act unconstitutional.

Dropped on a Friday (sometimes known as “Take Out the Trash Day” for government agencies and politicians dropping bad news), the ruling at the beginning of Labor Day weekend nonetheless prompted swift responses. From the Seattle Times:

State Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, said Saturday he will recommend that the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus call on Gov. Jay Inslee to bring legislators back into a special session immediately.

“Let the kids finish the year out and give the Legislature time to figure out a solution,” said Litzow, chairman of the Senate education committee. “But we don’t want to do this in such a way that the kids, once again, are getting hurt in the crossfire of a political move.”

Although there’s a 20 day period for supporters to appeal the decision, it’s hard to see what changes the majority’s mind. 

The Washington State Charter School Commission also conferred with the Attorney General’s Office on Saturday, but many questions remain, said Joshua Halsey, the commission’s executive director.

“In all likelihood, in 20 days we’re going to need to look at how do we close things down,” Halsey said.

STAND for Children calls the ruling an affront to vulnerable students

Nearly 1200 Washington families have made the careful choice to send their children to high-quality public charter schools in pursuit of a better education for their children. Nine of the ten charter schools in the state have already started class for this school year. This ruling makes the future of those students uncertain.   

The ruling has drawn national attention to the court and the state’s public schools.

The Wall Street Journal says the decision is “politically driven,” “overreaching,” and “legally flawed.”

From the Times story:

However, Greg Richmond, president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, disagreed [with critics who fault charter schools for not warning parents of a possible adverse decision], noting that 42 states and the District of Columbia all allow charter schools.

“Every state has its own laws, but there is a national track record on this,” said Richmond, whose organization helped the commission evaluate applicants to run charter schools.

Education Week writes,

This is the first time in the country that a state Supreme Court has struck down a charter school law, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Washington is again an outlier. Columnist and former AWB president Don Brunell notes the history of the charter school law.

Approved by voters in 2012, I-1240 allowed up to 40 charter schools at a rate of eight per year. The initiative specified that low-income, at-risk students be given priority, and charter schools were required to meet the same rigorous certification, performance and teacher accreditation standards as traditional schools.

… Voters approved I-1240 because they wanted a choice, an alternative to our state’s traditional public schools.

That alternative, for now, is gone and its future is in doubt, an unforeseen outcome deeply troubling legislative supporters of charter schools.

Rep. Chad Magendanz, R-Issaquah, and ranking member on the House Education Committee, said he was stunned by the decision.

“I’m shocked. I’m worried about the political aspects about this,” Magendanz said. “The court is becoming too much of ‘a political animal,’ ” said Magendanz, a charter-school supporter.

The court said:

Our inquiry is not concerned with the merits or demerits of charter schools. Whether charter schools would enhance our state’s public school system or appropriately address perceived shortcomings of that system are issues for the legislature and the voters.  The issue for this court is what are the requirements of the constitution.

Thoughtful people can disagree about the “requirements of the constitution;” the dissent is compelling. Setting that concern aside, however, the challenge for lawmakers now is how to reconcile the constitution with charter school law. From comments we’ve seen, it’s apparent that a Legislature committed to maintaining proven educational alternatives for vulnerable students can meet that challenge. It’s time for action to preserve charter schools and restore certainty to affected students, parents and teachers. The next few weeks will be decisive.