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Washington Supreme Court upholds most of charter school law

UPDATED: Thu., Oct. 25, 2018

Washington Supreme Court (Associated Press)
Washington Supreme Court (Associated Press)

OLYMPIA – Charter schools are mostly constitutional in Washington, a divided state Supreme Court said Thursday, and one problem area that a majority of the court found can be split from the law to allow them to continue operating in select communities around the state, including for some 1,000 students in Spokane.

In a series of concurring and dissenting decisions, a majority of the court rejected most of the challenges the Washington teachers union, school administrators, the League of Women Voters and other groups posed to the 2016 law the Legislature crafted to overcome an earlier ruling that charter schools as approved by voters in 2012 were unconstitutional.

There are “deep-seated conflicting opinions” over charter schools, Justice Mary Yu wrote in the main opinion. “While each side of the discussion may have legitimate points of view, it is not the province of this court to express favor or disfavor with the Legislature’s policy decision to create charter schools.”

Brenda McDonald, founder and chief executive officer of Pride Prep in Spokane, praised the decision as ending “a very long haul” for the school that started with 180 students and now has 500.

“It’s a good day,” McDonald said. “We focus on the kids. We’ve continued to move forward, but this (legal challenge) has always been looming in the background.”

Pride Prep remained open after the 2016 ruling by finding additional sources of funding. Now offering grades six through 10, it expects to have grades six through 12 in two years.

Spokane’s other charter school operation, the International Academies, which offers primary and middle school grades, has about 500 students total, a school official said.

The 2016 charter school law doesn’t violate constitutional requirements for funding because it doesn’t divert restricted tax money from the regular public school system, the majority said. One reason the court struck down the original charter school law was that the Legislature decided to pay for the schools out of the general fund. After that decision, it set up a system that takes money from lottery proceeds sent to a special account.

Charter schools also meet state requirements to provide “general and uniform” education, even though their curricula can be different from public schools, Yu wrote, provided they follow the Basic Education Act.

“Charter schools are not rendered unconstitutional just because they do not operate identically to common schools,” Yu said in a lead opinion signed by three other justices.

The new law does violate constitutional protections for collective bargaining rights for charter school employees, Yu concluded. That law allows each school’s employees to unionize, but not to form unions across schools, as most teachers unions operate. But that section can be stricken from the law the Legislature passed without knocking out the other provisions, she concluded.

The decision was praised by longtime proponents of charter schools like Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, the ranking Republican on the Senate budget committee.

“Not all students learn the same way, so our state has a responsibility to provide a range of choices that best meet the needs of children,” he said in a prepared statement.

A spokesman for the Washington Education Association teachers union was disappointed by the ruling.

“We still believe it is wrong to divert public funds to privately run organizations that are not accountable to local voters,” Rich Wood said in a news release.

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