Washington State Debates Constitutionality of Charter Schools


Washington's state Supreme Court heard an ongoing debate over money for public education last week, this time centered on the state's new commitment to public charter schools.

A group of teachers, parents, and community groups is suing the state in an effort to stop the charter school system from continuing in their state. The gathering of opponents wanted to discuss what the constitution says about money to be used for public schools, particularly how much money is restricted for use in traditional public schools and how much autonomy the Legislature has to address paying for children who will attend charter schools, writes Donna Gordon Blankenship of the Associated Press.

This is not the first hearing that has come before the Supreme Court in recent months. In fact, the court held the Legislature in contempt in September when the lawmakers did not make progress toward changing the way the state pays for public education. The issue was that legislators were relying too much on local tax-levy dollars to balance education funding. This case, known as the McCleary decision, and this latest lawsuit focus on the same section of the Washington Constitution, Article IX, — and, of course, on money.

The justices are discussing how some state dollars are earmarked for use in regular public schools and whether charter schools meet the constitutional definition of a regular school. While some of the coalition want the justices to look back at the decisions made by the framers of their constitution, the state argues that the regular schools, once known as common schools, have changed over time, as high schools were not originally considered common schools.

Community colleges get state dollars set aside for K-12 schools through a program that allows a student to attend high school and community college at the same time.

Deputy Solicitor General Rebecca Glasgow said that only 29% of the state dollars for education are restricted. Justice Debra Stephens then asked if that meant that the remaining 71% could be spent on anything. David Stolier, assistant attorney general in charge of the education division, said that a decision may be hard to arrive at.

"It's a complex case in many ways," Stolier said. "I think there was some confusion up there as to how that system works and the role of the state property tax."

A more thorough explanation of "common schools" can be found in words written in the mid-to late-1800's by state founders and legislators, "…to create common schools that are open to all children, supported by local taxes, and controlled by an elected board of directors." Meriem L Hubbard, writing for Pacific Legal Foundation, reports that the State and charter school supporters argue that the public schools system has grown to a place where innovative and flexible programs designed to serve a diverse student population are necessary. Also, the state already supports non-traditional programs such as gifted studies, at-risk students programs, and online courses.

Northwest Public Radio's Ann Dornfield reports that the plaintiffs' attorney, Paul Lawrence, said voters were misled about how charter schools would be funded. He points to the language in the initiative.

"We treat these the same as common schools. We fund this the same as common schools. These are common schools," Lawrence said. "These are common schools. That was the mantra that was given to the voters. And that simply isn't accurate at the end of the day."

In an editorial written in The Spokesman-Review, readers are asked to consider that a majority of voters approved the 2012 initiative which authorized the creation of 40 charter schools in Washington. The decision as to how money will be divided, where the funding will come from, and what constitutes a common school will be up to the justices. The writer reminds his readers that the charter school debate should be centered on what is best for the children. Proponents of charter schools believe that the establishment of alternative learning centers for students who are not benefiting from their time in traditional classrooms is money well-spent.

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