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Washington’s charter school law effectively intact after court ruling

By   /   December 17, 2013  /   No Comments

By Mary C. Tillotson | Watchdog.org

The process to open charter schools in Washington will continue unhampered after the King County Superior Court last week upheld most of the voter-approved law.

Charter school supporters and opponents expect that an appeal will send the law to the state supreme court, possibly bypassing the appeals court. Both groups said they were pleased with the initial court ruling.

APPROVED: A Washington court ruled that the charter school authorization process can continue, provided that charter schools aren't funded in a way they weren't planning to be funded.

APPROVED: A Washington court ruled that the charter school authorization process can continue, provided that charter schools aren’t funded in a way they weren’t planning to be funded.

“We are thrilled with the ruling. It allows the charter schools to move forward unimpeded, and that’s really all that we were hoping for,” said Tania de Sa Campos, deputy state director for Democrats for Education Reform.

De Sa Campos had sponsored the ballot initiative and personally intervened in the lawsuit, as a citizen, parent and initiative sponsor.

“It was a victory for supporters of public education,” said Rich Wood, spokesperson at the Washington Education Association, part of a coalition of plaintiffs opposing the law. “It sure would have been nice to have the judge rule in our favor on every single one of the issues, but at the core, this law is unconstitutional, and that affirms what the coalition members believed all along.”

The law allows local school districts and a state-level commission to authorize those wanting to start charter schools. Over a five-year period, 40 charter schools can be opened.

The ruling struck down one provision of the law that grouped charter schools with Washington’s “common schools,” a technicality that effectively means charter schools are ineligible for a category of funding they weren’t planning on having anyway, said Liv Finne, director for education at the Washington Policy Institute. That part of the law was severed, and the rest continues to be in effect.

The state’s constitution requires that the Legislature support a “general and uniform system of public schools,” which includes “common schools, and such high schools, normal schools and technical schools as may hereafter be established.” The full text of Article 9, Section 2 can be read here. (The constitution was adopted before the state had high schools, Finne said.)

Charter schools fall under the umbrella of the “general and uniform system of public schools,” the court ruled, but do not belong in the specific category of  “common schools.” Except for the “common schools” provision, the law was upheld.

“It doesn’t have a material effect on current (charter school) applications,” de Sa Campos said.

“The court has held the vast majority of the charter schools initiative constitutional, and the state will continue to implement this law,” Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a statement.

Lisa Macfarlane, spokesperson for the Washington State Charter Schools Association, said she wasn’t surprised with the ruling.

“We always thought it was constitutional,” she said. “We vetted it pretty carefully with constitutional law experts, and we were confident it would pass constitutional muster.”

Even though the plaintiff coalition considers the ruling a victory, it’s likely to appeal, Wood said, citing a desire for a final word from the state’s highest court.

“The lower court decision last week is more or less the first step in this process,” he said. “It’s important to get a final decision so everybody has clarity about this law. That’s in everybody’s interest.”

Generally, winning parties don’t appeal court decisions.

Plaintiffs noted at least seven different constitutional issues with the law, but Wood declined to comment on them individually.

Contact Mary C. Tillotson at mtillotson@watchdog.org.

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Mary C. Tillotson is a national education reporter for Watchdog.org. She has reported for School Reform News, published by the Heartland Institute, and The St. Ignace News in northern Michigan. Contact Mary at mtillotson@watchdog.org.

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