Suit clouds new charter law in Washington State

Suit clouds new charter law in Washington State

(Wash.) Two decades after much of the nation began offering parents the option of sending their children to publicly-financed charter schools,  officials in the state of Washington are engaged in aggressive catch-up, hoping to have their first schools opened in the fall.

A newly-formed state charter school commission received proposals last month from 18 organizations while three more were separately submitted to Spokane Public Schools. Vetting is ongoing and there’s hope that the first cohort of eight schools will be selected before the end of January.

The only problem is that the state’s teacher association, school administrators and the League of Women Voters have challenged the new state law allowing charters – a suit that won a partial victory from a superior court judge last week.

Charter supporters, who have struggled for years to gain approval, said they intend on carrying on the screening and selection process despite the legal cloud.

“We expected a legal challenge when we drafted the measure,” said Lisa Macfarlane, state director for Democrats for Education Reform and one of the architects of the November 2012 charter initiative. “And we expect to be arguing this before the state supreme court by spring.”

The law, which passed by a slim majority of less than 2 percentage points, will allow no more than 40 charters schools to be opened over the next five years. It also restricts the state to no more than eight new schools in the first round of approvals.

Under the law, charters can be authorized either by a local school board or by the new charter commission, but local officials must first undergo a review process and obtain permission from the Washington State Board of Education.

The new charter commission is governed by a nine-member board appointed by the governor, the lieutenant governor and the House Speaker.

The law also requires that charters predominately serve the high-poverty, low-performing communities.

The suit challenging the new law has raised a number of issues, but perhaps the key question is whether charter schools – operating independent of an elected school board and, in turn, the voters – qualify under Washington law for public funding.

“We don’t believe that a private non-profit corporation appointing board members to oversee and govern the schools provides accountability to the tax payers, who are paying for the schools,” said Catherine Ahl, education chair of Washington’s League of Women Voters.

She said a long-standing state supreme court ruling clearly defines ‘common schools’ – those that can receive public funding – must be governed by an elected board.

The ruling Thursday by a King County judge upheld all but a section of the law that would have allowed charters eligible for state construction money, although there is some question whether the court also undermined charter’s access to public funds for operations.

Both sides do agree that the case will go forward to the state’s highest court.

Meanwhile, officials said the work of reviewing the applications goes on with a goal of announcing the winners by the end of January.

“There’s a lot of excitement over the number of applicants that have shown interest,” said Marta Reyes-Newberry, interim CEO of the Washington State Charter Schools. “It’s a very good mix of high-quality charter management groups coming into the state as well as home-grown proposals.”

Among those competing for permission to open new schools are two well-known California operators: Green Dot Public Schools, which operates 18 schools in the Los Angeles area and recently expanded into Memphis; and Summit Public Schools, which serves about 6,000 students in 14 schools in the Bay Area.

Voters in Washington rejected charter authorization three times before passing last year’s measure making it the 42nd state to approve charters. That leaves three states in the south – Alabama, West Virginia and Kentucky; four in the northwest – Montana, Nebraska and the two Dakotas; and Vermont as the last holdouts. Lawmakers in Mississippi approved a bill authorizing charters there earlier this year and they are still in the early stages of organizing a process to establish new schools.