Blog: The Educated Reporter

Will Washington State’s Supreme Court Ruling End Charter Schools?

The Temple of Justice, where the Washington Supreme Court convenes, in Olympia. (Flickr/OnceAndFutureLaura)

Washington’s new charter school law was ruled unconstitutional Friday by the state’s Supreme Court, “creating chaos for the hundreds of families whose children have already started classes,” the Seattle Times reported.

The Evergreen State was a late arrival to the charter schools landscape.* The vast majority of states allow the independently operated, publicly funded schools. (Alabama became the 43rd state to approve charter schools with the passage of a new law last spring.) In 2012, Washington voters approved a referendum allowing up to 40 new charter schools over a five-year period. But that victory came after similar ballot measures had failed to win public support – three times in the prior 16 years.

The latest twist in Washington’s charter school saga is being closely watched by choice friends and foes across the country. Indeed, there have been intense battles recently in states and localities with tight caps on the number of charter schools allowed, such as Massachusetts and New York City.

At the same time, the charter sector continues to grow, and by some measures demand appears to exceed supply. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a research and advocacy group, estimates 100 percent growth in charter school enrollment since 2007, and says more than one million students are on waiting lists for charter seats.  

But the rapid expansion has come with some significant growing pains – and charter school advocates are among the first to concede that the academic quality varies widely across schools, cities, and states. (We tackled the charter school quality conundrum at an EWA seminar held last winter in Denver.) It’s also one of the reasons why blanket statements about the charter schools concept, “charters are better” or “charters are worse” than traditional public campuses, don’t do much to advance the conversation. Key issues policymakers are grappling with include how best to ensure charter school quality and equitable access by families.

Reporting on charter schools is a complex issue  – even on days that don’t have the kind of blockbuster headlines we’re seeing in Washington State. At EWA’s recent National Seminar, we looked at some of the challenges and opportunities for education journalists to cover the school choice debate – and still hit their deadlines.

Back in Washington, the Supreme Court justices didn’t rush their verdict:  they deliberated for nearly a year before handing down the 6-3 vote late in the day at the start of a long holiday weekend.

The decision was based on Washington’s state Constitution, which has strict definitions 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 timing is unfortunate for students, families and staff, said Joshua Halsey, executive director of the state’s charter-school commission.

“The court had this case in front of them since last October and waiting until students were attending public charter schools to issue their ruling is unconscionable,” Halsey told the Seattle Times. “We are most concerned about the almost 1,000 students and families attending charter schools and making sure they understand what this ruling means regarding their public-school educational options.”

Tacoma, Washington, has the most new charter schools opening this fall – five of them – including Summit Olympus High School, which is part of a charter school network in both the Evergreen State and California. (EWA hosted a visit to Summit school in Hayward, California, last year. You can read more about that visit, and the network’s innovative approach to using data to drive instruction, here.) Last month Debbie Cafazzo of the Tacoma Tribune took a closer look at the project-based learning model at Summit Olympus:

For the first week, as an orientation to the Summit way of learning, students were asked to interview fellow students and solicit ideas on how to improve their school environment. They also will brainstorm in small classroom groups and share documents with classmates online. They’ll present their ideas to the entire class.

Each of five classes will vote on the best idea in their class, then those five students will present to the whole school. The entire student body will choose from among the five ideas. Projects must fall within budget parameters.

The Washington Supreme Court’s ruling doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the state’s charter schools, and their supporters are promising to use means necessary to keep the doors open. Indeed, the national charter schools alliance is already urging the governor to call a special legislative session to address the legal ramifications and protect the more than 1,200 students already enrolled.

Could Washington State’s new charter schools survive? Even educated guesses don’t mean much right now, given how surprised many of the experts closest to the issue were by last week’s ruling, as the Seattle Times reported:

Washington State Charter School Commission Chair Steve Sundquist said that commissioners anticipated a range of possible outcomes affecting funding, but didn’t draw up a plan to deal with a complete reversal.

“We were not expecting a ruling as deeply disappointing as this one,” Sundquist said.

For more on charter schools, take a look at EWA’s Topics Page. You can also read more (and watch video highlights) from our Charters and Choice Seminar in Denver here.