The state Supreme Court ruled Thursday that funding charter schools with lottery money does not violate the state constitution.

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As a cool drizzle greeted students stepping off school buses and into Rainier Valley Leadership Academy Thursday morning, their families and caretakers rejoiced.

They had just learned their charter school was going to be just fine — for now, at least.

In a ruling released Thursday morning, the state Supreme Court held that funding charter schools with lottery money does not violate the state constitution.

The justices agreed to uphold most of a 2016 law that authorized the lottery money for charter schools. But they struck a provision that restricted charter schools from unionizing across schools, the way most teachers unions operate in traditional school districts.

While the justices disagreed on the finer points of a complicated law, six of the nine ultimately agreed to uphold it.

The lead opinion in El Centro de la Raza v. Washington was written by Justice Mary Yu. “Charter schools are not rendered unconstitutional just because they do not operate identically to common school,” she wrote.

Charter-school advocates celebrated, while the state teachers union expressed its disappointment. It wasn’t immediately clear whether any of the plaintiffs planned to appeal the decision.

Charter schools are publicly funded, but privately run — and they have engendered intense opposition and litigation since they were first approved to open in Washington state in 2012. Twelve such schools currently enroll about 3,500 students. A legal challenge in 2015 dealt a blow to the charter-school movement here: Justices ruled that giving money from the state’s general fund to the schools was unconstitutional.

A year later, the Legislature followed up by passing the law that funds charters through lottery revenues.

At the heart of the new lawsuit was the question of whether that public money can fund schools that aren’t accountable to elected boards.

The plaintiffs — which include El Centro de La Raza, the statewide teachers union, the League of Women Voters of Washington and other groups — argued that the 2016 legislation was unconstitutional.

Breaking down the ruling

The mix of opinions made it hard for even the state’s top charter-school advocates to understand the ruling’s implications.

In her lead opinion, Yu rejected arguments from charter-school opponents that the schools were unconstitutional because local voters do not control them. She argued that their funding source, unlike traditional schools, does not include local property tax levies.

One opinion of partial dissent, written by Justice Steven Gonzalez, echoed Yu’s overall conclusion about funding but disagreed on the collective-bargaining issue. Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst signed on to that opinion.

There were two wholly dissenting opinions. In one, Justice Barbara Madsen agreed with charter opponents who argued before the court in May that local voters lack control over charter schools since they’re privately managed and do not have elected school boards. They “lack any direct accountability to the communities they purport to serve,” she wrote. “Charter schools, which purport to be open to all students and to provide a general education, are exempt from many of the requirements of our state public school system.”

In a separate dissent, Justice Charles Wiggins found the state’s charter-school law is unconstitutional because it gives the state schools chief only one seat on an 11-member commission that oversees charter schools.

“The lead opinion attempts to trivialize the fact that the charter school act gives powers to the charter school commission and school district authorizers without giving any oversight of these powers to the superintendent,” Wiggins wrote. Justice Susan Owens joined both Wiggins’ and Madsen’s dissenting opinions.

Why people do — and don’t — want charter schools here

Families who enroll their children in charters say they offer smaller class sizes or more targeted instruction than they receive at their neighborhood schools.

The Rainier Valley charter school serves mostly African-American and East African kids, and draws its enrollment of 275 students in grades six, seven and nine from Brighton, Hillman City, Columbia City and Rainier Beach.

Matthew Grace, who volunteers to help with drop-off, has a grandson Moonie in the school’s sixth grade.

“This is the best school he’s ever been in,” Grace said. “His attitude and academics are better here than they were in the public school he went to last year. He loves the teachers and overall he’s a better kid. He loves to work.”

As Grace spoke, Principal Walter Chen greeted each student with a fist-bump, a morning ritual.

The ruling affords families a sense of legal stability, at least for now. The statewide teachers union, a plaintiff, said it had no immediate plans for pursuing further legal action. The parties have one month to file a motion for reconsideration.

Skeptics, meanwhile, often blame charter schools for funneling money away from traditional schools and claim they enroll fewer students with disabilities or who live in low-income households. (A recent study found that, as of May, a majority of charter schools in Washington enroll a larger share of students with disabilities than the state average. And in Western Washington, 75 percent of charter students are kids of color and 63 percent come from low-income families.)

Mixed responses in Seattle

While some opponents in Seattle and beyond fear the ruling will encourage the creation of more charter schools, the decision doesn’t “personally” worry Leslie Harris, president of the Seattle School Board.

The School Board has taken a strong stance against the growth of charter schools. In January, members passed a resolution that opposed Green Dot’s request to the city to build a school larger than zoning rules allow.

“I can’t say I’m terribly surprised” about the ruling, said Harris, who gave her comment from a conference in Baltimore. “But we’re (SPS) doing a better job every day serving our families and voters.”

School Board member Zachary DeWolf struck a different note.

“While I am deeply frustrated by this decision by our state’s Supreme Court, this is the exact moment our state’s lawmakers need to get back to work to actually fully fund public education” so that parents don’t feel the need to turn to charters, he said.

At  Summit Sierra High School in the International District, Natalie Hester, a mother of two students there who also serves on the board of directors for the Washington State Charter Schools Association, greeted fellow parents with whoops and cheers. “We won!” she said.

Meanwhile, it is still unclear whether charter schools could access funds from the city’s proposed Families, Education, Preschool and Promise Levy — a $600 million-plus city education levy on the Nov. 6 ballot.

What the parties say

Charter-school advocates called the ruling a win. “Today’s ruling is a victory for the students of Washington state, a win for public education and a big step forward in the fight to close the opportunity gap that persists in our state,” Washington State Association of Charter Schools CEO Patrick D’Amelio said in a statement. “Today’s decision marks an important step forward for Washington.”

Washington state schools chief Chris Reykdal said he didn’t have an opinion on the ruling.
“I’ve truly kept out of this thing,” said Reykdal, “But I have never believed they’re [charter schools] public schools, and I still don’t believe they’re public.”

Wood, of the teachers union, specifically countered the lead opinion’s ruling that charters remain publicly accountable despite not having a locally elected school board.

“Local residents still want to know that the school in their community is accountable to the community itself,” he said. “That’s the way we do it in 295 school districts.”

Wood added that the union’s attorneys still needed to review what implications the ruling will have for the collective-bargaining rights of teachers who work in charters. Justices striking the bargaining provision of the charter-school law marked a partial win for the plaintiffs, who argued the restriction against unionizing made the schools unconstitutional.

“Part of the charter-school model to diminish the role and economic impact of unions on schools, and [the ruling] directly addresses that,” said Paul Lawrence, an attorney for the plaintiffs. Lawrence said there are still a few scenarios that could spell future litigation.