The Supreme Court announced in early December that it will hear the latest legal challenge to charter schools in 2018. The challenge came after a King County Superior Court judge ruled in February that the state’s charter-school law is constitutional.
For the second time, Washington’s Supreme Court will decide the fate of charter schools in Washington state.
Two years ago, the court ruled that the state’s charter schools were unconstitutional, sending charters — which are public schools, funded with public dollars and run by private groups — into turmoil.
But after the state Legislature came up with a fix by funding charters out of state lottery money rather than the general fund, a coalition of parents, educators and civic groups filed suit again.
The group lost in Superior Court in February, when a King County judge ruled that, with the funding change, the state’s charter-school law is constitutional.
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That cheered charter supporters, who say charters are a good option for many students.
About 2,500 Washington students attend 10 charter schools, according to the Washington State Charter Schools Association.
“Voters have created one of the strongest charter-school laws in the nation — one that focuses first and foremost on closing the opportunity gap in systemically underserved communities,” state charter association spokeswoman Cynara Lilly said. “It works for our state government, for our schools and most importantly, it works for our kids.”
But opponents, which include El Centro de la Raza, the Washington Education Association and the League of Women Voters, appealed the King County judge’s ruling and the case was expedited to the Supreme Court — another step in the ongoing legal battle.
Plaintiffs claim the law violates the state constitution because it allows public funding to go to charter schools run by private groups that aren’t accountable to voters.
In his February decision, King County Superior Court Judge John Chun ruled that charters are accountable to voters. School districts can apply to be charter-school authorizers, he wrote, and schools are authorized by the statewide Commission on Charter Schools, which includes elected officials like the state superintendent.
He also ruled that the lottery funds are constitutional, too.
The plaintiffs maintain that charters aren’t accountable to Washington citizens in the same way that public schools are, with publicly elected boards overseeing them, said teachers-union spokesman Rich Wood.
“It’s still the same principle,” he said. “We’ll see what the court says this time around.”
Charter opponents won an earlier lawsuit in 2015, when the Supreme Court ruled that giving charter schools money from the general fund violated the state constitution. Chief Justice Barbara Madsen wrote that charters aren’t “common schools” so, under the state constitution, they can’t receive money from a fund meant for common schools.
After that, state lawmakers passed a new law that funds charters through lottery money.
Despite the continued legal battles, charter schools continue to open in Western Washington. The California-based Green Dot organization, for example, is seeking city approval to build its Rainier Valley Leadership Academy in South Seattle.