OLYMPIA – Whether charter schools are a legal form of the state’s public school system or a way for private schools to get public money is an issue the Washington Supreme Court must decide. Again.
In the second round of arguments over charter schools authorized by the Legislature, justices seemed to focus on how the schools are overseen by a state commission that is appointed, not elected like local school boards, and the way their teachers are paid.
Former state Attorney General Rob McKenna said it shouldn’t matter that charter schools aren’t under the control of the locally elected school board. The Legislature has the power to create special types of public schools, like the School for the Blind or the aviation school, that aren’t under local control.
“It is simply not a requirement of the constitution that every public school must be governed by a school board,” said McKenna, who represents the schools, their students and parents and the state Charter School Association. “There are no locally approved funds.”
But Paul Lawrence argued that the 11-member commission is not accountable to voters, and the fact that most members are appointed by elected officials is too tenuous because appointees have to favor charter schools.
The exception are charter schools in Spokane, which are governed not by the commission but the local school board, where members can be voted out if the public is unhappy, he said.
“This is a very different creature – privately managed, publicly funded,” said Lawrence, who represents groups that include the Washington Association of School Administrators, the Washington Education Association, other unions and parents who have children in public schools. “You can’t create uniformity by saying, ‘We are the same, except …’ ”
Voters narrowly approved charter schools by initiative in 2012, but that law was quickly challenged under the state’s strict constitutional provisions for public education. In 2015, the state Supreme Court said the Legislature couldn’t pay for charter schools out of the general fund, which under the constitution is reserved for “common schools.” The next year lawmakers set up a new system which puts aside money from lottery proceeds into a separate Opportunity Path Account for charter schools.
That generated a new legal challenge, with the King County Superior Court ruling last year upholding the current charter school system, followed by the inevitable appeal to the Supreme Court. A ruling on the case is weeks or months away.
Justices asked both sides if charter schools are governed by its landmark McCleary decision, which includes legal requirements for paying teachers and other staff.
That’s a problem, Lawrence said, because charter schools don’t have to pay teachers like other public schools. It’s not a problem, assistant Attorney General Rebecca Glasgow said, because the Legislature set up a new collective bargaining unit along with the new charter school entity.
The justices focused several questions on whether it was appropriate to restrict the collective bargaining rights of charter school employees; the law allows them to unionize within a school, but not across schools, the way most teachers unions operate. They also homed in on whether the state superintendent of public instruction has sufficient oversight of charter schools under the law.
After the one-hour argument before the court, some 1,500 students, parents and supporters of charter schools gathered on the north steps of the domed Legislative Building across from the Temple of Justice.
“This is a real-life civics lesson,” Patrick D’Amelio, the charter school association chief executive officer, told the cheering crowd. “In the face of all this, we just keep moving forward.”
Heidi Mitchell, the mother of a student at Pride Prep charter school in Spokane, said her son J.D., who has mild dyslexia, enrolled in the charter school after struggling in a private school using more traditional methods. (Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said J.D. Mitchell previously attended a public school.)
“The change was phenomenal,” Mitchell said. “These are our schools and this is our voice. We’ll keep fighting for that option.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.