Washington State’s SCOTUS Decision Threatens More Than Charter Schools

Interestingly, the teachers' unions have invested heavily - financially - in the courts.

When the Washington State Supreme Court issued its ruling declaring charter schools unconstitutional, it’s possible they also put funding in jeopardy for dozens of other schools in the state. The ruling, based on a 1909 case, declared that charter schools were not “common schools,” and therefore couldn’t received public funding.

A “common school” is defined by School District No. 20 v. Bryan as “one that is common to all children of proper age and capacity, free, and subject to and under the control of qualified voters of the school district.” It’s that last part that is key. According to Philip Talmadge, a former Democratic state senator and former Washington Supreme court justice, the ruling applies to more than just charter schools:

…the decision could not only effectively destroy public charter schools, taking away public school options for 1,300 enrolled students and thousands in the future, but also many other innovative programs like Running Start, which allows high school students to take community college classes.

Some, like Running Start, are not operated by local school districts. Our constitution requires the Legislature to provide a system open to all, but nowhere restricts its ability to fund specialized programs within that system. Thus, the court’s opinion on public charter schools raises serious constitutional questions about whether these other public school programs meet the court’s restrictive definition of a “common school” and can receive public funding.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson is also calling on the court to review its ruling:

The decision not only invalidates Initiative 1240, but also unnecessarily calls into question the constitutionality of a wide range of other state educational programs. These important programs range from Running Start to Washington State Skills Centers that provide career and technical education to high school students.

The inconsistency of the ruling was noted in the dissent by Justice Mary Fairhurst, who wrote:

In her dissent, Justice Mary Fairhurst said the majority opinion was inconsistent.

“Indeed, programs, such as Running Start, that are not under the control of local voters and are thus not common schools, receive support through the $7.095 billion appropriation for public education,” she wrote.

Running Start, mentioned by Attorney General Bob Ferguson, Justice Fairhurst and the former Supreme Court justice, has 20,000 students. It’s governed by appointed boards of community colleges, not the “qualified voters of the school district.”

The court’s decision was applauded by teacher’s unions and other progressive organizations in the state. Interestingly, the unions have invested heavily in the courts:

The Washington Education Association (WEA) has been the largest donor to Supreme Court races since 2008, with $21,200 in direct contributions, according to campaign-finance data maintained by the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Seven justices received maximum donations of $1,800 or $1,900 from the WEA during their most recent campaigns. Justice Susan Owens also benefitted from a $50,000 WEA donation to a political-action committee supporting her in 2006. The union was a named plaintiff in the lawsuit to overturn the 2012 charter-schools initiative.

There has been serious pushback across the state on this decision. Parents of charter school students, along with supporters of charter schools, are already holding rallies to protest the ruling:

To chants of “Save our schools!,” at least 450 kids, parents and charter supporters gathered at Destiny Charter Middle School in the Dometop neighborhood. They pushed back against last week’s state Supreme Court ruling that struck down Washington’s 2012 voter-approved charter law.

And newspapers editorial boards are condemning it also:

Almost 1,300 students and their parents – real flesh-and-blood people – have had their academic years disrupted by this ruling, which threatens the existence of their schools and kills an initiative approved by the voters in 2012. The court released the decision late Friday afternoon just before the Labor Day weekend – timing normally associated with embarrassing announcements from politicians about to duck out of sight.

The court ought to be embarrassed by its majority opinion, signed by an embarrassing six justices.

Their political decision was not very well thought out and, if not changed, will have a far bigger impact on the state than the closing of a few charter schools. What will be interesting is how the court justifies any change, considering they took over a year to come down with a decision in the first place.

Regardless, the “embarrassing six justices” who voted against freedom in education will have a reckoning come the next election.

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1 comment

  1. ThomasW Reply

    This could actually be quite interesting. A broad reading of the decision (based on the post above, I didn’t try to read the decision) implies all State and Federal money for schools is at risk if there are any strings attached. This could kill charter schools in Washington and at the same time make it the first state to refuse all federal Dept. of Education money and rules.

    But my guess is any court review of the decision will decide that the “common school” definition allows State run programs but doesn’t allow charter schools, lawyers can always find an argument for any arbitrary position.

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