August 20, 2014

Back to School Choice 2014 — Defending Washington's charter schools law

By Meriem L. Hubbard Senior Attorney

In November 2012, Washington became the forty-second state to allow charter schools. The Charter Schools Act, adopted by one and a half million Washington voters, authorized the establishment of up to forty public charter schools in the first five years. Charter schools are public schools, so they are secular, open to all, and don’t charge tuition. Although charter schools must meet many of the same educational standards as traditional public schools, they have more freedom to innovate in other areas, such as scheduling, personnel, funding, and educational programs.

The emphasis of Washington’s charter school law is to serve at-risk students who have been underserved by the traditional school system. At-risk students include children from poor families, minorities, English language learners, and special education students. Many parents and educators welcome the new opportunities that will come with greater choice in education, but the traditional education establishment views the law as a threat to Washington’s public school system.

After the Act was adopted by Washington voters, a coalition that includes the state teachers’ union and school administrators filed a lawsuit alleging that it violates multiple provisions of the Washington State Constitution. The trial court ruled that the Act is constitutional, but that charter schools are not entitled to state matching funds for construction. Both sides appealed the decision directly to the Washington Supreme Court, which will hear oral argument on October 28, 2014. PLF will file an amicus brief in mid-September that focuses on one of the constitutional arguments raised by the teachers’ union: whether the Charter School Initiative is consistent with the Washington Constitution’s requirement for a “general and uniform system of public schools.” PLF will argue that “general and uniform” does not mean that charter schools must be identical to traditional public schools.

The ability to try different teaching methods in order to improve student achievement does not violate the “general and uniform” requirement. State courts in California, Colorado, and Ohio have upheld charter school laws with provisions similar to Washington’s requirement of a “general and uniform system of public schools. As explained by the Ohio Supreme Court, “[r]equiring community schools to be operated just like traditional public schools would extinguish the experimental spirit” of the state’s charter school laws.” We hope the Washington Supreme Court will follow suit.

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