Hundreds of charter school students, teachers, and supporters rally at the Capitol in Olympia on Thursday. Teachers unions and other groups have sued over Washington state’s 2016 charter school law, which was enacted after the justices struck down the old law as unconstitutional. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Hundreds of charter school students, teachers, and supporters rally at the Capitol in Olympia on Thursday. Teachers unions and other groups have sued over Washington state’s 2016 charter school law, which was enacted after the justices struck down the old law as unconstitutional. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

State Supreme Court weighs validity of charter school law

Critics of the law object to using public money for schools over which voters have no control.

By Gene Johnson / Associated Press

OLYMPIA — Hundreds of charter school students rallied at the state Capitol on Thursday as the Washington Supreme Court considered arguments that could threaten to close their classrooms.

Jalen Johnson, an 11th-grader at Summit Sierra charter school in Seattle, told the crowd that the commitment of his teachers helped turn him from an average middle-school student who had little thought of attending college to a thriving high-school junior who hopes to study urban planning at the University of California at Berkeley.

“This is how every school should be,” he said. “Our success should be the norm, not the exception.”

Teachers unions and other groups have sued over the 2016 charter school law, which lawmakers enacted after the justices struck down a 2012 voter-approved initiative that allowed charter schools for the first time in Washington.

The lawsuit argues that using public money to operate alternative, nonprofit charter schools over which voters have no direct control is forbidden by the state Constitution and diverts money needed by traditional public schools.

A King County Superior Court judge upheld the new charter school law, and the challengers appealed.

Paul Lawrence, a lawyer representing the groups, told the justices that if the Legislature wanted to allow school districts to open their own charter-like schools, it could probably do so. But the law as passed has numerous problems, including that it restricts the rights of charter school teachers to unionize and bargain for their pay and benefits — despite state law that allows public employees to unionize, he argued.

“These are private schools funded by public dollars,” Lawrence said.

Some 2,400 students attend the 10 charter schools that have opened in the state, with about 1,000 more planning to enroll as more schools open in the fall, according to the Washington State Charter Schools Association — a minuscule number compared to the million-plus in traditional public schools. Most states allow charter schools.

“Charter schools serve at-risk students, some of whom — many of whom — are now excelling in a public school for the first time,” Rebecca Glasgow, an attorney for the state, argued.

Rob McKenna, the former state attorney general who is representing the association, disputed the notion that charters are private schools, noting that they’re free to attend and open to anyone. He described them as complementary to traditional schools, rather than as replacements for them, as Lawrence characterized them.

“It is simply not a requirement of the Constitution … that every form of public school have a school board,” McKenna said.

Among the other types of public school programs that lack direct voter oversight is Running Start, which allows high-school students to take classes at community and technical classes.

Lawyers for the state called the challengers’ argument illogical.

“In their view, a specialized school open only to select students — like the University of Washington program for highly capable students — is perfectly consistent with a general and uniform system, but charter schools, which are open to all and are required to meet the same basic education requirements as common schools, are not,” the state wrote in a court brief.

The justices focused several questions on whether it was appropriate to restrict the collective bargaining rights of charter school employees; the law allows them to unionize within a school, but not across schools, the way most teachers unions operate.

They also homed in on whether the state superintendent of public instruction has sufficient oversight of charter schools under the law.

A decision is not expected for months.

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