Judge rules state charter school law unconstitutional

SEATTLE — A King County Superior Court Judge has found that part of the state’s voter-approved charter school law violates the state constitution, but proponents said the ruling will not affect the implementation of the schools.

The first schools are scheduled to open in fall 2014.

“This doesn’t stop the freight train that’s moving forward,” said Lisa Macfarlane of the Washington State Charter Schools Association.

King County Judge Jean Rietschel, in a ruling issued Thursday, found that a charter school can’t be defined as a “common school” because it’s not under the control of voters in a school district. Under the state Constitution, schools have to be under the control of voters in their districts to be considered part of the state system and obtain state construction funding.

Macfarlane said that’s a ruling on a technical aspect law that’s not currently relevant.

Ultimately, questions of the constitutionality of charter schools will likely be answered by the state Supreme Court, proponents and opponents say.

Charter school opponents, represented by attorney Paul Lawrence, say the law passed by voters is unconstitutional because it interferes with the state’s obligation to pay for public schools, set a uniform curriculum and establish other rules.

Lawrence also argued the law takes authority granted by the constitution away from the superintendent of public instruction and from the Legislature. Rietschel, however, did not agree with those challenges.

The state attorney general’s office, representing the people of Washington, argued the charter law enhances education and does not circumvent anything in the constitution or the court decisions that have clarified sections on education.

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

The state’s charter school system was approved by voters in 2012. Washington became the 42nd state to allow the independent public schools. The initiative campaign succeeded in part because of money from Seattle’s tech economy – Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates donated $3 million, outside his charitable foundation, first for the signature gathering effort and later to promote the initiative. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen donated $1.5 million.

Last month about 20 groups and individuals filed proposals to be among the first to open a charter school in the state. The next step will be public hearings and then approval of the first schools in February.

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