Yes, the timing could have been better.
The state Supreme Court’s 6-3 ruling that found unconstitutional the citizen initiative that allowed for the establishment of charter schools came late Friday afternoon, before the Labor Day weekend and just days into the school year for the handful of charter schools in the state.
The ruling means those eight fledgling charter schools, which serve about 1,200 kindergarten through 12th grade students in Spokane, Tacoma, Highline and Seattle, are ineligible for state funding.
The court’s majority, in an opinion written by Chief Justice Barbara Madsen, found Initiative 1240, which created the schools, unconstitutional because it shifted funds meant for the state’s “common schools,” to schools that were not subject to the oversight of voters through an elected school board. Instead, while receiving public funding, the initiative allowed that charter schools would be administered by an appointed board and would be free from many of the state regulations and school district policies that govern public schools. The majority, in its ruling, cited a 1909 precedent that clearly found that only the voters, through those they elect, had the authority to administer publicly supported schools.
While the initiative passed in 2012 with a slim majority — just 50.69 percent — the court’s decision offers the reminder that the voters’ will remains subject to the state constitution and that the initiative process cannot be used to amend it.
The high court didn’t specify what should happen with the existing charter schools and their school year, instead sending the case back to the King County Superior Court for those decisions.
Charter schools may represent a laboratory for innovation, discovering methods that better educate students who aren’t always served well by traditional public schools. But if public funds are going to be used, then there has to be more accountability to voters.
Supporters of the charter schools have called for immediate action. The Washington State Charter Schools Association, the Washington Policy Center and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools asked Gov. Jay Inslee to call an immediate special session to find a solution that keeps the charter schools open.
We can appreciate that charter school supporters see some urgency to the issue. Without public funding those charter schools will either have to find another source of support or close, sending their students back to public schools. But this case was heard by the state Supreme Court in October. With a decision pending throughout this year, those running the charter schools must have known there was a risk in assuming the court would find in their favor. Waiting for the court’s ruling would have avoided a lot of the scrambling now faced by the charter schools and public schools, which may now have to find room for additional students.
And that urgency now expressed for 1,200 students yet seems lacking for the more than 1 million public school students in Washington state who are waiting for the Legislature to show an achievable plan for how it will meet its constitutional mandate to amply fund K-12 education.