A legal battle that threatened the future of charter schools in Washington state appears to be over. A majority of the state Supreme Court ruled that the privately operated but publicly funded schools are constitutional.
That means the 12 charter schools in Washington state serving about 3,400 students can remain open. Two of them are run by the Spokane school district and the remaining 10 are run by non-profit organizations, including two California-based chains, Summit Public Schools and Green Dot Public Schools. The schools run by non-profits are authorized by the Washington State Charter School Commission.
State legislators passed a law two years ago to preserve charter schools after the state's high court ruled that a previous law approved by voters was unconstitutional. The court at that time said the law passed by voter initiative in 2012 was flawed because charter schools aren’t the same as common schools and can’t be paid for out of the general fund. Lawmakers rewrote the law to fund the schools with lottery revenue.
Now, proponents of charters are celebrating. Patrick D'Amelio, chief executive of the non-profit advocacy group Washington State Charter Schools Association, said the schools offer families an alternative.
“We’re particularly proud that charter schools serve disproportionately higher numbers of students of color, students impacted by poverty, special education students,” D’Amelio said. “Families are choosing charters for a reason across the state and we expect there will continue to be demand and that we’ll work to meet it.”
Most of the charter schools are in the Puget Sound region, and a 13th school is set to open in the Skyway area south of Seattle next fall. D'Amelio said state law allows for up to 40 to be authorized by the year 2021.
Charter schools have been a contentious issue in Washington. The 2012 statewide voter initiative to authorize charter schools eked out a victory of less than 51 percent. Opponents say as more charters open, traditional public schools could be hurt because if they lose students, they'll lose funding. Proponents say charters offer a choice to families, especially in lower-income communities.
For parents with kids in charter schools, the decision was a relief. Natalie Hester has two children in charter schools in Seattle – a senior at Summit Sierra in the city’s Chinatown-International District and a seventh grader at Summit Atlas in West Seattle.
“I’m really happy that they decided to listen to families and kids about wanting something else,” Hester said. “The system’s not working for everybody.”
Hester said she chose to send her older daughter to a charter school because she wasn't getting the help she needed in math in a traditional public middle school. Now, Hester said her daughter is in advanced placement calculus and is applying to college.
The Washington Education Association, one of the groups that filed the lawsuit, said it doesn't plan to file another legal challenge to charter schools. Charter schools have sometimes been seen as a way to circumvent public school teachers’ unions.
The controlling decision from the state Supreme Court said charter school employees have the same collective bargaining rights under state law as other public employees.
Charlotte Garden is an associate professor at Seattle University School of Law specializing in labor issues. She said there’s still a question of whether charter school employees’ collective bargaining would be governed by state public-employee labor law or federal labor law for private employees overseen by the National Labor Relations Board.
“That is an issue that the NLRB in Washington (D.C.) has addressed with respect to charter schools in a number of different states coming to different conclusions depending on how these schools are structured,” Garden said.