Charter Schools Looking Back

In this June 18, 2014 file photo, twins Deborah, left, and Petros Kahssay, 8, walk through a hallway at First Place Scholars Charter School, Washington's first charter school, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

Charter school advocates no doubt suffered the jitters in advance of a court ruling on the Friday before the Presidents Day holiday — the timing recalled Labor Day weekend 2015, when the state Supreme Court ruled that the charter schools’ funding mechanism violated the state constitution. But this time, charter schools advocates enjoyed a much happier holiday after a ruling that buttresses a promising educational tool in this state.

Quick history: The state Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling, by a 6-3 vote, determined that charter schools are not “common schools” because they are governed by appointed rather than elected boards. The Legislature last year made a fix to the law, allocating lottery funds to charter schools; that move was challenged in King County Superior Court by a coalition of parents, civic groups and educators — the latter group included the Washington Education Association and Washington Association of School Administrators. They claimed the legislative fix violates the state constitution because it diverts public funding to charter schools that aren’t accountable to voters.

On Friday, Judge John H. Chun rejected the plaintiffs’ argument, stating their claim about diverting funds “lacks ripeness” — curious nomenclature regarding charter school legalities, but we won’t quibble. Chun also ruled that charter schools are accountable to elected officials — school districts may apply to authorize charter schools. The judge also said the schools can be authorized by the state Commission on Charter Schools, which includes the elected superintendent of public instruction and other members appointed by the governor and the Legislature.

In addition, the plaintiffs argued that charter schools are not part of a “general and uniform system of public schools,” The judge rejected that claim, saying charter schools are required to teach the same academic requirements and take part in the same student assessments as common schools.

The charter schools’ bumpy judicial history reflects an even more tortuous political history. After three failures at the state ballot box starting in the 1990s, charter schools finally — and narrowly — won voter approval in 2012. A charter school is a public school that is open to all students but operates independently of district management and administrative rules; the schools can try approaches like longer school years or more class time for students who need it.

Charter schools admittedly have a mixed record in the 40-plus states that allow them. Supporters in this state, recognizing abuses elsewhere, developed a tightly defined law that limits the number of schools and requires that the schools meet a range of standards. Charters won’t solve all of education’s problems, but they can serve as a laboratory for finding better ways to educate students.

A spokesman for the Washington Education Association said Friday that opponents are not sure if they will appeal, and they may direct their efforts to the Legislature. The best course would be to get out of the way and allow the still-limited charter school experiment — only eight charters operate statewide, with three more scheduled to open next fall — conduct their mission under the oversight of the charter schools commission. Many of the schools target low-income and minority students, whose academic performance lags behind their peers in our current system.

The judge’s “ripeness” determination is appropriate for a school system that is ripe for innovation — innovation that could start with the charter schools if given the chance.

 

• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Bob Crider, Frank Purdy.

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