State Supreme Court says no — again — to Washington charter schools

Charter SchoolsDemocratic state Rep. Larry Springer, left, speaks to supporters of state charter schools during a rally in front of the Capitol in Olympia, Wash., on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015. Rachel La Corte AP

The Washington State Supreme Court announced Thursday that it will not reconsider its September decision declaring the state’s voter-approved law establishing charter schools was unconstitutional.

The high court had been asked to reconsider its decision by several parties, including the state charter school association, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, a bipartisan group of 10 legislators and four former state attorneys general.

A slim majority — five of the nine justices — said the court should deny the request for reconsideration. Three justices dissented, saying they would have revisited the decision in full.

Additionally, Justice Mary Yu said she would have been willing to reconsider the portion of the decision invalidating charter school funding.

The court ruled Sept. 4 that the state’s voter-approved charter school law is unconstitutional, mainly because the schools are overseen by boards that are appointed rather than elected.

The state’s nine charter schools — all but one newly opened in August — have continued to stay open as they waited to see whether the court would reconsider its ruling.

Three of the charter schools are in Tacoma.

The ruling came on a day when buses from Tacoma and elsewhere in the state ferried more than 400 students and parents from charter schools to Olympia, where they rallied at the Capitol, testified before a joint Senate committee meeting and met with legislators.

Sen. Mark Mullet, a Democrat from Issaquah who met with charter school families at the Capitol, called the timing of the decision “horrible.”

“There are 300 students here who were really happy with their schools,” Mullet said. “What a bad day for the court to tell them that they’re not going to reconsider.”

Katie Wilton, a ninth-grade student at Summit Olympus in Tacoma, called the ruling unfair and asked lawmakers to be courageous and do whatever they can to save her school.

“This goes against the will of Washington state voters,” Wilton said. “This is not how democracy is supposed to work.”

A change in state law now appears to be the last hope charter supporters have for maintaining public funding for the privately managed schools. The schools had been receiving public funds while the court reconsideration loomed.

What will happen on the funding front is still to be determined, said Cynara Lilly, spokeswoman for the newly formed Act Now for Washington Students, which backs charters.


Rich Wood, Washington Education Association spokesman

“We are disappointed that the Supreme Court hasn’t ruled in favor of our families who are crying out for these great public schools,” said Maggie Myers, spokeswoman for the Washington State Charter Schools Association. “What this means is that we will shift our attention to the Legislature.”

“This adds a sense of urgency to what kids and parents were asking for today,” Lilly added.

Sen. Bruce Dammeier, a Puyallup Republican who is one of the Senate Republicans’ leaders on education issues, said the court’s decision was disappointing, especially considering how many stories lawmakers heard Thursday about how charter schools were benefiting students.

“Many students of poverty and color, who have felt disenfranchised and disconnected by our traditional schools, are seeing tremendous results at these schools,” Dammeier said. “Why the Supreme Court would be using arcane legal arguments and technicalities to deny these 1,200 students the education that they choose and is successful for them is beyond comprehension.”

Others said the Supreme Court was correct to stand by its September ruling. State Rep. Chris Reykdal, D-Tumwater, said charter schools — like traditional public schools — need to be accountable to local voters and taxpayers.


Cynara Lilly, charter school spokeswoman

The court’s announcement Thursday should help refocus the Legislature’s attention on boosting funding for K-12 public schools, said Rich Wood, a spokesman for the statewide teacher’s union that challenged the charter law.

In the case known as McCleary, the Supreme Court has held the Legislature in contempt for its failure to come up with a plan to fully fund basic education by 2018.

“Now it’s time for the Legislature to focus on its paramount duty … and fully fund K-12 schools for all of our state’s kids,” said Wood, of the Washington Education Association. “That’s what we expect lawmakers to do when they return in January.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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