Originally posted on The Progressive:
The Washington State Supreme Court ruled on September 4, 2015 that charter schools are not “common schools” and therefore cannot be funded by common school funds. The judges based their decision on the issue of public funding for schools that are not publicly governed, not subject to local accountability, and not under the authority of elected school boards. Proponents of charter schools and parents who enrolled their students expressed shock and disappointment in response to the Supreme Court decision.
The ruling, however, is not surprising, as Catherine Ahl, Education Chair for the League of Women Voters of Washington, points out. The King County Superior Court ruled in December, 2013 that charter schools are not “common schools” and therefore cannot be funded by tax dollars. The case then made its way to the Washington State Supreme Court. Before the Supreme Court had a chance to issue its ruling, the Charter School Commission, went ahead and approved the opening of 9 new charter schools in the state, and the schools began enrolling students.
Why did the commission approve these schools if the case had not been settled? Were parents told when they enrolled their students in the charter schools that the schools might close at any time pending a Supreme Court decision?
The charter school advocates should have been more cautious. The court ruling blocking the spread of charter schools is not surprising given the history of charter schools in Washington State. Charter schools had been voted down by Washington voters three times. Two times, initiatives were placed on a statewide ballot, once in 1996 and then in 2000. Both were defeated. The same happened with a Referendum in 2004. Then in 2012, charter school proponents were able to place Initiative 1240 on a statewide ballot again. The initiative is based on a model bill written by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC, the Center for Media and Democracy explains, is a powerful group that influences the legislative process around the country by enabling right-wing Republicans to work face-to-face with corporate lobbyists to author and pass model bills that can be replicated from state to state.
After getting Initiative 1240 onto the ballot, proponents of the bill spent $10.9 million, making it the third most expensive initiative campaign in state history. Six individuals collectively spent more than $9 million in support of the initiative, including Bill Gates, Alice Walton of the WalMart fortune, and Eli Broad, founder of the Broad Foundation. In contrast, opponents of the measure raised approximately $700,000. The initiative narrowly passed by a 50.69% majority vote, but the slim victory exposed the lack of popular support for charter schools in the state and galvanized the opposition.
For some time, public school educators and advocates in Washington State saw the rising tide of education privatization starting in Chicago and in New Orleans spreading to New York, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. The warning bells began to ring through local blogs, online publications, newspaper editorials, and by word of mouth in Seattle and beyond, so the public became aware of organizations, such as the Broad Foundation, that were pushing charter school expansion. The Broad Foundation also established a Superintendents’ Academy for placing charter-friendly educators and military retirees into superintendent positions around the country. The Broad academy was instrumental in placing one of their graduates into the Seattle Public School system as a Superintendent in 2008.
By the time the charter school Initiative 1240 was on the ballot, there was a greater awareness of what charter schools are, who runs them, how they make their money, and their uneven quality. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit were the Washington Education Association, which campaigned against charter school initiatives in the past; the League of Women Voters, which published a position paper opposing Initiative 1240; El Centro de la Raza; the law firm Pacifica Law Group with a focus on constitutional law; Wayne Au, PhD, who has published articles on the subject of charter schools; and individuals and parents who did not want to see charter schools in the state. The respondents in the case included the Washington State Charter School Association, the League of Education Voters, the Cesar Chavez charter school, and Initiative 1240 sponsor Tania de la Campos with Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) .
Principally, the court’s ruling centered on two terms—”common schools” and “paramount duty”—in the Washington State Constitution. “Common schools” are termed public schools in Washington State and are to be publicly funded with oversight by publicly elected bodies of governance. “Paramount duty” refers to the duty of the State to adequately fund public schools. The focus on the term “paramount duty” in Washington State turns on the state’s inadequate funding of its public schools. In 2012 Washington State ranked 40th in per student spending in the United States. In a cased titled McCleary vs State of Washington, the Washington State Supreme Court found the state legislature in contempt of court for not doing its “paramount duty” to adequately fund public schools and levied a $100,000 fine against the state for each day a reasonable budget agreement is not reached. Given the inadequate school funding the court clearly showed concern that charter schools would take limited resources away from public schools contributing to their highly tenuous financial situation.
So what happens to the movement to fight off charter school expansions now?
To keep the charter schools open through the school year—supporting the 1,200 students enrolled (total enrollment of students in public schools in Washington State is 1 million plus)—wealthy individuals and foundations have donated $14 million to the Charter School Commission. Also, the Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson has submitted a request to the Supreme Court to reconsider the decision. There are signs the court decision in Washington is resonating with public school activists elsewhere in the country and is sparking a national discussion on what charter schools really are and who should pay for them. Education advocates in Minnesota and Alabama are bringing the constitutionally of charter schools to the forefront in their states.
More than anything else, the Washington State Supreme Court decision is giving public school advocates hope that there are legal recourses to charter schools when legislatures refuse their duties to uphold the right for every child to have access to a high-quality public school