The drama over whether to allow charter schools in Washington state is getting another act.
A coalition led by the state teachers union filed a long-awaited lawsuit Wednesday, turning to the courts after state voters narrowly approved the schools on supporters’ fourth attempt last November.
The claim that charters violate the state constitution is the latest move in Washington’s nearly two-decade fight over charters, which are free and public but independent schools that are allowed to use unusual — and sometimes controversial — methods.
Charter schools exist in more than 40 states, although they have proved divisive across the country.
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In Washington, a state commission established under last November’s initiative is laying the groundwork for charters, with a goal of opening the first ones in fall 2014.
The lawsuit filed Wednesday in King County Superior Court asks that the commission’s work be stopped and the law declared unconstitutional for “improperly diverting public school funds to private organizations that are not subject to local voter control” and “impeding the State’s constitutional obligation to amply provide for and fully fund K-12 public education.”
The suit had been expected since at least February, when the union made a legal challenge to the initiative.
In filing the lawsuit, the Washington Education Association was joined by the League of Women Voters of Washington, El Centro de la Raza, the Washington Association of School Administrators and several individual plaintiffs.
The state Attorney General’s Office said Wednesday it plans to fight the suit.
“It’s the attorney general’s job to defend the will of the voters, and that’s what we’ll do in this case,” said Janelle Guthrie, a spokeswoman for the office.
A spokeswoman for the initiative called the lawsuit an “expensive distraction.”
“We’ve confident that our law is going to pass constitutional muster,” said the spokeswoman, Lisa Macfarlane.
“We believe strongly that public charter schools are part of a range of solutions that helps kids have access to a great education, and parents and voters agreed when they approved the initiative,” said Macfarlane, adding that charter schools have been challenged in many other states and have never been found unconstitutional.
Paul Lawrence, an attorney for the coalition, said the Washington state constitution is unique.
The lawsuit alleges the initiative violates the constitution in seven ways, including by improperly delegating public education duties to private organizations, interfering with progress toward complying with a state Supreme Court order for lawmakers to spend more on education, diverting funds to schools not under local voter control and taking power away from the state superintendent of public instruction.
“The Charter School Act poses a real threat to our public school system in Washington,” said one of the plaintiffs, education advocate Wayne Au.
The state superintendent, Randy Dorn, has said the initiative unconstitutionally takes away his power. But on Wednesday, his office declined to immediately comment on the lawsuit.
The president of the Charter School Commission, former Seattle School Board President Steve Sundquist, said he is “disappointed that the Washington Education Association and the litigants have filed suit.”
“The charter school commission intends to keep moving forward to implement the law consistent with the will of the state’s voters,” he said. “We’ve got good momentum in our work right now.”
Sundquist noted that Monday marked the deadline for school districts to apply for permission to independently authorize charter schools.
Only one district applied: Spokane Public Schools.
The commission itself also will approve charter schools.
Sundquist said the commission will issue a request for proposals in September.
Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal