The Washington state Supreme Court on Sept. 4 rule the state’s charter school law as unconstitutional. The justices dug deep to justify their decision, referencing a definition of public schools from a 1909 case, School District 20 vs. Bryan. Instead of citing a particular right spelled out in the U.S. Constitution or Washington state’s constitution, the court based its ruling largely on its own, distinctive interpretation of the term “common schools.”
The ruling essentially claims charter schools are not public schools, which could not be more blatantly false. Charter schools are public schools that have somewhat more autonomy than traditional public schools. Most states now have charter school laws on the books, so Washington’s law was not some kind of weird experiment, but rather right in line with other programs dozens of states and cities have already implemented.
The court ruling is based on the absurd premise that charter schools are not accountable to taxpayers because they are not run by elected school boards. But the state’s 2012 charter law came into being because of a ballot initiative voted on directly by — you guessed it — the taxpayers of Washington state. They gave their approval at that time.
Unlike traditional public schools, charter schools are also directly accountable to the parents of the children who attend them. Charter schools typically close within three years if they are not doing a good job. Failing public schools just go on and on, dooming more children to a poor education. The teachers unions and their allies who sued to stop the state’s charter law are forcing those students to remain trapped in their failing schools. Just who is it that’s acting as if they’re not accountable to the taxpayer here?
It was particularly irresponsible for the court to delay making this decision until the school year was about to start, thus leaving hundreds of students in the lurch. Again, just who is it that’s acting as if they’re not accountable here?
Liv Finne, director of education studies at the Washington Policy Center, notes the people of Washington passed the charter school law through the ballot initiative process because they wanted serious educational reform. The court is denying them their right to decide how their schools should be structured.
“Just as schools across Washington open their doors to students, the state Supreme Court placed school reform in serious jeopardy,” Finne said. “For technical reasons, the court struck down the charter school law passed by voters in 2012. The state teachers union — the Washington Education Association, which funded the lawsuit against the charter school law — celebrated the ruling.”
Finne says the state’s teachers unions have undue influence over education policy in Washington. She’s obviously right.
“The ruling has shocked and upset the parents and families of the 1,300 children enrolled in one of Washington’s nine new charter schools,” said Finne. “Questions are now being raised about union influence on the Supreme Court. Public records show seven of the nine Supreme Court judges took maximum contributions from the state teachers union during their election campaigns.”
The technical fixes necessary to correct this ridiculous ruling are simple: either change or remove the term “common schools” from state law or rewrite the definition of the term to include charter schools, which are, as noted earlier, public schools. That just happens to be what the voters of Washington have expressly communicated they want. Since the state’s courts won’t do the right thing for Washington’s children, it’s up to the Legislature to do so.
The court made a disappointing decision in this case, and parents, teachers and taxpayers will all have to stand up and demand more.
Heather Kays is a research fellow with The Heartland Institute and is managing editor of School Reform News. Her email address is email@example.com.