Washington State Supreme Court Rules Charter Schools Unconstitutional


The Washington State Supreme Court has ruled 6-3 that charter schools are unconstitutional. Possibly the first of its kind in the country, the ruling overthrows a 2012 law that allowed publicly-funded, but privately operated, schools. The law would have allowed 40 new charter schools to open in Washington over a five-year period.

John Higgins of The Seattle Times reports that eight new charter schools are opening in the state this year, adding to the charter that opened in Seattle last year.

The charters’ officials have 20 days to ask the court to reconsider before the final ruling. A new college-preparatory high school in Seattle, Summit Sierra, has already opened with its inaugural freshman class of 130. The school’s officials say they are not shutting their doors yet.

Soar Academy, Summit:Olympus in Tacoma, Excel Public Charter School in Kent, Destiny Charter Middle School, Ranier Prep, PRIDE Prep, and Spokane International Academy in the Spokane area have already opened. All of these schools are full, and no one is sure what will happen next.

Chief Justice Barbara Madsen wrote that charter schools are not “common schools” because they are governed by appointed, not elected, boards. Because of that, “money that is dedicated to common schools is unconstitutionally diverted to charter schools.” Justice Mary E. Fairhurst argued that the state “can constitutionally support charter schools through the general fund.”

The campaign opposing charter schools, which filed the suit in 2013, was of the opinion that the charter law was unconstitutional because it “improperly divert[s] public-school funds to private organizations that are not subject to local voter control.” Plaintiffs included the Washington Education Association, the League of Women Voters of Washington, El Centro de la Raza (The Center for People of All Races), the Washington Association of School Administrators, and several individuals.

“The Supreme Court has affirmed what we’ve said all along — charter schools steal money from our existing classrooms, and voters have no say in how these charter schools spend taxpayer funding,” said Kim Mead, president of the Washington Education Association.

Joshua Halsey, executive director of the state charter-school commission, said the court’s timing was unconscionable. Almost 1,000 students and families are now perplexed and anxious about their children’s education.

Thelma Jackson, chairwoman of SOAR Academy, said that officials from all the charters are planning a conference call to discuss their options. The Olympian writes that Jackson criticized the court for making this announcement on a Friday before a holiday, creating chaos for charter officials.

She added that SOAR had not received its per pupil state funding, but was expecting to by the end of the month. So far, they have gotten by with grant and non-state funding.

Madsen said the argument that charter schools could be paid by the general fund rather than from money for public schools was not acceptable. In fact, the original charter law did not specify a source for the money, but stated that charter schools must “receive funding based on student enrollment just like existing public schools.”

The Tacoma Public Schools spokesman, Dan Voelpel, said school districts stand ready to accommodate any students displaced should the charter schools doors close. Approximately 125 students would need to be assimilated into Tacoma’s public schools. Voelpel said that his district was not involved in the suit, nor did the School Board support either side on the litigation.

Reactions to the court’s decision were swift and numerous. Melissa Santos reports for The News Tribune that Republican state lawmakers were some of the first to take to Twitter. Sen. Joe Fain (R-47th District) wrote that “legislators and voters must act to remedy this egregious mistake.” Steve Litzow (R-41st District) noted that in a state where 1 in 3 African-American students are failing, there’s a need for every tool available. Mark Miloscia (R-30th District) called the decision another big mistake for the Washington Supreme Court. He said he had lost his confidence that the court had the ability to read the words of the state constitution.