Washington State Court Case: Chartering Breakdown…or Breakthrough?

A recent Washington state Supreme Court case created quite a kerfuffle by striking down a 2012 voter-approved charter school law in that state as unconstitutional. Chartering opponents have seized upon this as if it is somehow relevant to other charter school laws around the country.

It isn’t.

The Washington Supreme Court relied on arcane language in the Washington state constitution about “common schools” rather than public schools, and ignored the fact that the system of public education has evolved since the 1800s.

What I found most interesting in all of this, is how this decision has brought together Democrats and Republicans, chartering opponents and proponents to two common conclusions: 1) the court got it wrong and 2) the real harm in all of this is disruption in the lives of 1,300 students currently enrolled in 9 charter public schools in the state.

Perhaps most surprising is that all five living Attorneys General of the state of Washington, two Democrats and three Republicans, disagreed with the decision and agreed that the court should reconsider the outcome. As reported by former Attorney General Rob McKenna in his piece, “Unanimous: Five Attorneys General Think Court Got Charters Case Wrong,”  the attorneys general not only found the case poorly-reasoned, but that it unnecessarily called into question the constitutionality of a wide range of other state educational programs.

One of these five is former Governor Christine Gregoire who frankly, was never a friend of charter schools. Says Gregoire: “Even more surprising to me than the outcome of the case is the timing of it.  The case had sat before the court for some time, and then it issues its opinion on the eve of when these students are going to school…not right, not fair.”

Another of the five, former U.S. Senator Slade Gorton told the Seattle Times the charter school ruling was an “absolute disgrace.”

Ironically, this may be the “setback” that brings people in Washington together, at last, in common recognition that charter schools offer appropriate public school choices. This reminds me of what happened when Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City tried to “evict” 190+ public charter school students from a district school facility in Harlem, even though their test scores were near the top of state rankings. Governor Cuomo and the NY legislature responded immediately, passing facilities revenue for charter schools that had failed to pass for a decade. Not exactly the response the Mayor had hoped.

I see the same prospect for Washington state, which adopted its chartering law in 2012 after a close—and divisive—voter referendum. This court battle may bridge the divide at last, for the sake of the children.