SEATTLE – Teachers unions, parents and other groups filed a lawsuit Wednesday over Washington’s new charter school law, a measure that was enacted last spring after the state Supreme Court struck down the old law.
The organizations say the Legislature’s effort to revive charter schools after the 2015 court decision didn’t actually fix the problem cited by the justices: Public dollars needed for traditional public schools are still being diverted to alternative, nonprofit charter schools over which voters have no control, in violation of the Washington Constitution.
Diverting millions of dollars to charter schools also hinders the state’s efforts to comply with the court’s 2012 McCleary decision, which ordered the state to boost education spending, the lawsuit claims.
“Instead of passing unconstitutional charter school laws, we believe the Legislature should focus on its paramount duty – fully funding K-12 basic education for all of our state’s 1.1 million students, no matter where they live,” Kim Mead, president of the Washington Education Association, said in a news release announcing the lawsuit.
Other groups behind the lawsuit include the League of Women Voters, El Centro de la Raza and a variety of labor groups, including Boeing’s Machinists union and the Washington State Labor Council.
Sen. Joe Fain, a Republican from Auburn who co-sponsored the bill passed by the Legislature this year, said he was disappointed “that the education union is spending so much time and resources to deny children an education that is working for them.”
“The union is right about one thing,” Fain said. “The state has an unmet duty to a million kids that are in both traditional and charter public schools. A solution to McCleary will provide better equality and opportunity to students no matter what kind of public school they attend.”
The state’s Charter School Commission, which authorizes charter schools, said it was “profoundly disappointed” the case had been filed, and the Washington State Charter Schools Association, a nonprofit that promotes the schools, said it would seek to intervene.
“We condemn this suit as nothing more than an intimidation tactic designed to preserve a broken status quo and scare our teachers, families and students,” the association said. “Our state’s new charter public school law is the product of the Legislature’s bipartisan effort to save our state’s charter public schools – schools designed to address equity and opportunity gaps for students of color and from low-income backgrounds whose families are seeking better public education options.”
Jaime Smith, a spokeswoman for Gov. Jay Inslee, said the state has no plans for immediate changes. Inslee, who had said he did not want the charter schools to shut down, allowed the new law to take effect without his signature.
“Right now, charter schools are still open and children will be starting in the next month,” she said. “We’ll see what happens in court.”
In 2012, voters passed Initiative 1240, making Washington the 42nd state to approve charter schools. The measure provided for the opening of as many as 40 charter schools within five years. The first opened in the fall of 2014; there are now eight, in Spokane, Tacoma, Kent, Highline and Seattle.
Last year, the Washington Supreme Court ruled 6-3 to invalidate the initiative, finding charter schools were not eligible for public school funding because they are controlled by a charter school board – not by local voters.
Supporters and students held rallies at the Capitol and lobbied lawmakers, and the Legislature ultimately approved a bill called the Charter School Act in March in an effort to keep the schools operating. Instead of using general fund money, the new law directed that charters be paid for with money from the Opportunity Pathways Account, which is supported by lottery revenues.
In the lawsuit, the groups called that a mere “shell game.”
Fain disagreed. He said Wednesday that “the law that passed the Legislature complies with every defect that was identified in the court case.”
“There is nothing in the law, the Constitution or the previous court ruling that shows that this law is invalid,” he said.
The lawsuit also takes issue with the way several charter schools remained open – and purported to remain eligible for state funding – by joining the Mary Walker School District in Stevens County, in northeastern Washington, as “alternative learning experiences.” Such programs typically include online programs, and nothing in state law allowed charter schools to qualify as alternative learning experiences, the lawsuit said.
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