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Charter schools Q&A: Impact of ruling will take time to sort out

Mary Himley, a science and social studies teacher at Spokane International Academy, pauses while chatting with students before school Tuesday.
Mary Himley, a science and social studies teacher at Spokane International Academy, pauses while chatting with students before school Tuesday.

After a divided state Supreme Court ruled Friday that charter schools are unconstitutional, there were many questions about the future of those schools and their students. Not all those questions have answers yet, but here are some that do.

Q. Why did the court say charter schools are unconstitutional?

A. In its 6-3 ruling, the majority said only “common schools,” which are those public schools under the control of local school districts and fully bound by all state regulations, can receive money set aside for public education by the general fund. Because charter schools are not governed directly by the school board and are exempt from some state regulations, the court majority said they don’t meet the criteria for common schools.

Q. Does that mean charter schools were ordered to close?

No, and all charter schools were open Tuesday. But the ruling would ultimately cut off their tax money, which currently pays for their operation.

Q. When does the money stop?

A. That’s unclear at this point, and the state attorney general’s office is studying how the mechanics of the court’s mandate would be carried out. The Washington State Charter Schools Association contends state money should continue until the trial court’s order is final and survives any challenge. After that, association Chief Executive Officer Tom Franta said Tuesday, it will find private grants if necessary to cover costs until a change in the law would allow state tax dollars to resume.

Q. How could state money come back into the picture?

There are two possibilities, although both are speculative. The association and other supporters of charter schools are asking for a special session of the Legislature to set up a mechanism to spend state money on charter schools, but separate it from money set aside for regular public school system. The majority’s opinion seems to doubt such a system could be set up, and that’s one reason it struck down the entire law. But in the minority dissent, three justices were clear they thought such a system would be possible. Any such change could generate another court challenge. The other option would be an amendment that would add charter schools to the education mandates in the state constitution in a way that gets around the court’s objections. The Legislature would have to pass such an amendment with two-thirds votes in both chambers and send it to the voters. The earliest it could be on the ballot would be November 2016.

Q. Will there be a special session?

A. Charter school supporters want Gov. Jay Inslee to call one, but the governor’s office said Tuesday he is still studying the decision and conferring with legal staff and other advisers. A spokesman said a special session “is a tool, not a strategy,” suggesting there would have to be agreement on a legislative fix before one is called.

Q. Does Inslee support charter schools?

A. He had no comment on them in the wake of the court’s decision. When he was elected in 2012, the charter school initiative was on the ballot. He opposed it; his Republican opponent Rob McKenna supported it.

Q. What about Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn?

A. He also opposed the charter school amendment when it was on the ballot.

Q. Does the court’s decision take effect right away?

A. No, the Supreme Court said it was sending the case back to the King County Superior Court judge, who heard the original challenge, to issue an order consistent with Friday’s ruling. Under Supreme Court rules, that won’t be final until Sept. 26. In the meantime, any party involved in the case can ask the Supreme Court to reconsider its decision. Franta, the charter association CEO, said he will file for reconsideration based on facts the association believes the majority overlooked. The attorney general’s office and others could also file for reconsideration, including the state Charter School Commission, a separate body appointed by state officials to oversee the schools that says it is “exploring every legal option.” If the Supreme Court takes time to consider those requests, it would delay the decision going to the trial court, which would delay the order from being filed.

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