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Washington Supreme Court rejects charter schools

6-3 ruling says money used unconstitutionally under Initiative 1240

OLYMPIA – Charter schools are unconstitutional in Washington, the state Supreme Court said in a decision that endangers two charters in Spokane that just opened.

The court in its decision released Friday afternoon voided an initiative approved by voters in 2012, saying charter schools don’t fit the definition of “common schools” that’s set down in the constitution because they lack local control and local accountability.

Travis Franklin, the Spokane International Academy’s head of school, said the charter school in north Spokane will open Tuesday.

“We’re still working through all the contingencies,” he said late Friday. “We will continue to serve the students as long as they allow us to serve the students.”

Kim Mead, president of the Washington Education Association, one of the groups that opposed Initiative 1240 and challenged the law, said in a news release the decision affirmed what the union contended all along, that charter schools take money from existing classrooms and voters have no control over how taxpayers’ money is spent.

The state Charter School Association issued a statement that its lawyers were reviewing the decision to see how it will be applied, and the organization would have a full statement “as soon as we have more details.”

State Sen. Mike Baumgartner, a Spokane Republican and frequent critic of the high court, blasted the ruling. “The mushy-headed WEA puppets on our state Supreme Court strike again,” he wrote on Twitter.

The Spokane International Academy has 172 students in kindergarten, first and sixth grades. It employs about 20 people, including seven classroom teachers, Franklin said. The school’s budget is about $2.6 million. State money was supposed to be deposited to the school monthly. Its first payment was scheduled for the end of this month, he said.

The academy leases the former St. Patrick’s Catholic school, 2706 E. Queen Ave., from the parish in Hillyard.

Franklin had been following the court case, but he said he was “surprised by the severity of the result.”

The other charter in Spokane, Pride Prep, currently has sixth and seventh grades and plans to serve grades six through 12 by 2021.

Attempts to reach the school’s director, Brenda McDonald, were unsuccessful Friday night.

The court’s majority said it wasn’t concerned about the merits of charter schools. Instead, the case revolves strictly around whether the initiative complies with the constitution, specifically Article IX, which says state revenues can only go to common schools and court-tested definitions of those institutions.

Charter schools aren’t governed by the local school board, the court said in a 6-3 majority opinion written by Chief Justice Barbara Madsen. They’re governed by a charter school board. They are also free of many regulations and state statutes that govern other schools.

Being “under the control of the qualified voters of the school district” has been a standard requirement for common schools since 1909, set down in a landmark case that has been used by Washington courts for more than a century, Madsen said.

The law requires money to go to charter schools on the same basis as other public schools, and that has to stop, the court majority ruled, saying, “Money that is dedicated to common schools is unconstitutionally diverted to charter schools.”

It doesn’t matter which tax is being used or which special account is set up, the majority said. It doesn’t matter if the new system is revenue neutral. The Legislature can’t divert money for common schools to another purpose, even if it’s for education.

“In sum, without funding, charter schools are not viable,” Madsen wrote in an opinion that struck down the entire initiative.

In a partial dissent, three members of the court said they agreed charter schools don’t meet the definition of a common school and shouldn’t get tax money set aside specifically for those entities. But they might be able to get other tax money that isn’t restricted in the general fund, Justice Mary Fairhurst said.

“Only 28 percent of the revenue appropriated for public education from the general fund is restricted,” she wrote. The number of charter schools is small and “they can certainly be funded through the remaining 72 percent of the appropriation from the general fund.”

The law allows no more than 40 charter schools to be set up over five years. The Charter School Association estimates about 1,100 students were set to attend eight charter schools this fall.

Fairhurst, who was joined by Justices Steven Gonzalez and Sheryl Gordon McCloud, drew a distinction between common schools and the overall education system in arguing the initiative should be upheld: “Because charter schools are part of our system of public education, they are the proper recipient of public school funds.”

Franklin said he doesn’t know if the Spokane International Academy can survive the ruling, but he considers his job “to make sure we continue.”

“It’s been amazing. Classrooms are humming,” Franklin said. “It’s essentially what we dreamed it would be.”

Staff editor Jonathan Brunt contributed to this report.

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