The Washington State Supreme Court’s Charter School Ruling: What it Means and What it Doesn’t
If you have paid much attention to school choice news from across the country, you’ve heard that the Washington State Supreme Court delivered a monumental ruling on September 4th regarding the state’s new charter school law. In a 6-3 decision, the state’s high court ruled that the state’s charter school law (Proposition I-1240) violates the Washington State Constitution. At issue was whether charter schools in Washington may be characterized as “common schools”. This is important in Washington because the state’s constitution requires that state public school funding only be used to support common schools. In its decision, the Court deemed that because the boards of Washington’s charter schools are appointed and not elected, they may not be considered common schools, and thus are ineligible to be funded by common school funding.
Forty-two states and the District of Columbia now have charter schools in operation. The nation’s first charter school law was passed in Minnesota in 1991. The Washington Supreme Court’s ruling marked the first time a state court has found charter school funding be be in violation of a state constitution. So as you can imagine, the ruling has sent shock waves through the charter school and school choice communities, not only in Washington, but across the United States.
What Does the Future Hold for Charter Schools in Washington State?
While charter school advocates and parents of children attending the new charter schools in Washington are working around the clock to save their new schools, in the short term, the likelihood of saving them is slim. While fundraising efforts of charter school supporters in Washington and nationally have been valiant, it”s not likely to be enough. Further, if the schools are not tax-payer funded, in my estimation at least, they may no longer be considered to be public schools.
There is no appeal’s process for the court’s decision. The Washington Supreme Court has spoken and their word is final. Just as with the U.S. Supreme Court and matters relating to the U.S. Constitution, the Washington Supreme Court is as far as it goes in Washington. In short, the Washington state constitution says what the Washington Supreme Court says it says.
All is not lost, however; at least not in the long term. Charter school advocates in Washington intend to revisit the state’s law. The Washington Supreme Court’s ruling was that charter schools in the state cannot be considered common schools because their boards are appointed and not elected. Charter advocates are now gearing up for another ballot initiative (Washington’s charter school law came as the result of a ballot initiative) which would amend the law to have charter schools boards as elected rather than appointed. Such a change would likely/maybe/possibly satisfy the Washington Supreme Court. As we saw with this case, however, the Washington Education Association is an extremely formidable foe for charter school advocates. We’ll just have to see what happens.
Implications for Charter Schools Across the U.S.
Outside of Washington state, education leaders, and policymakers, and parents are asking what the implications of the Washington Supreme Court’s decision might be for charter school policy and charter schools in other states. While the Washington state ruling does not apply to charter schools or charter school laws in other states, I do expect to see teachers unions lead (with renewed vigor) campaigns in other states to challenge the constitutionality of charter schools. My guess is the vast majority of those efforts will be unsuccessful, but there is definitely the possibility of success in some places. Charter school laws are different from state to state, and state constitutions have different provisions from state to state. Further complicating the issue is the reality that state courts have different political leanings from state to state; some which lean Right and tend to be more supportive of choice policies, and some which lean Left and tend to be much less supportive of school choice policy.
In short, the Washington ruling doesn’t signal the beginning of the end for charter schools in the U.S. As I’ve said many times and in many places before, charter schooling is now a permanent fixture of the public education landscape in the U.S. The ruling does, however, highlight a potential strategy for charter school opponents in other states. The politics of school choice has always been interesting, and it promises to remain that way.