Blog: The Educated Reporter

Charters And School Choice Challenged In Washington State, Nevada

A district court judge upheld a request to block implementation of Nevada's new Education Savings Accounts. An appeal to the state's Supreme Court is expected. (Flickr/Ken Lund)

In the wake of a state Supreme Court ruling that its new charter school law was unconstitutional, Washington lawmakers have approved a creative fiscal workaround that could allow the public but largely independent schools to remain open. 

In 2012, Washington voters approved a referendum allowing up to 40 new charter schools over a five-year period. But Washington’s state constitution features a strict definition of “common schools” – i.e. those that are publicly funded – and how they must be governed. The charter schools are overseen by appointed, rather than elected, leadership, and that is at odds with the law, the Supreme Court ruled.

The proposed legislation, approved by Washington’s state Senate last week, would allow the schools to be funded using revenue from the state’s lottery revenues, instead of its general fund. Charters would be reclassified as “uncommon schools” as a result. But, as the News Tribune reported, not everyone’s convinced the constitutional hurdles have been cleared: 

Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, called the bill the Senate passed Tuesday “a false promise” to help charter school students, and said it will merely set up another court challenge over the schools’ constitutionality.

In particular, Billig said, the bill doesn’t solve the problem of charter schools being privately run, despite receiving public funding. He predicted the court would strike it down, should it become law.

The battle in Washington is being closely watched by school choice advocates — and skeptics — nationally. Also in the spotlight: the ongoing challenge to Nevada’s new education savings account law, which would allow families to spend state dollars on private and parochial school tuition and other education-related expenses. A state judge recently granted an injunction requested by opponents of the new law, based on the conclusion that it violates Nevada’s constitutional prohibition against using public dollars for private schools. The Nevada law is widely seen as the most expansive private school choice policy in the country. 

While ESA policies are gaining ground in states as a means to promote school choice, charter laws are far more widespread. With the addition last year of Alabama (but excluding Washington state), 42 states and the District of Columbia now permit charter schools. But state charter policies continue to evolve, as a new report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools demonstrates. The advocacy organization recently released the latest edition of its annual report “Measuring Up to the Model: A Ranking of State Charter School Laws.” States were ranked based on a variety of factors including how difficult it is for charters to get up and running, whether states allow multiple authorizers (which typically means organizers have more opportunities to win approval), and whether there is a cap on the total number of charter schools allowed to operate.

It’s worth noting that some researchers question the methodology and usefulness of ranking states based on the perceived strengths or weaknesses of charter school laws. (For more, take a look at a study from the National Education Policy Center.)  

From the charter school alliance’s new report:

  • A handful of states lifted their caps on charter school growth (either partially or entirely). Among the notable changes: State lawmakers will allow more charter campuses in New York City and have granted authorizing authority to the state university system. 
  • Some states also expanded their authorizing environments, including a new requirement in Connecticut that charter school contracts be tied to student performance measures. 
  • Several states increased financial for charter school funding and facilities, including an Arkansas measure that authorizes up to $20 million for charters, and a new, $50 million charter schools loan program in Indiana. 

Given that it’s School Choice Week, this is an ideal time to tackle some of these hot-button issues in your own community. For more, including the latest research and news coverage, visit EWA’s Story Starters page on Charters & Choice. We also focused on these topics at a seminar in Denver last winter. You can find write-ups from those sessions, as well as video highlights, here.