The Washington Supreme Court ruled Friday that the state's voter-approved charter-school law is unconstitutional, throwing the new school year into chaos for about 1,200 pupils enrolled in the system.
In a 6-3 ruling, the high court said charter schools do not qualify as "common" schools under Washington's Constitution and cannot receive public funding intended for those traditional public schools.
The decision, which came nearly a year after oral arguments in the case and just after eight new charter schools opened, did not specify what will happen to the schools or the students who attend them. Instead, the justices sent the case back to King County Superior Court "for an appropriate order."
"Our inquiry is not concerned with the merits or demerits of charter schools," Chief Justice Barbara Madsen wrote for the majority. "Whether charter schools would enhance our state's public school system or appropriately address perceived shortcomings of that system are issues for the legislature and the voters. The issue for this court is what are the requirements of the constitution."
Joshua Halsey, head of the state Charter Schools Commission, lambasted the timing of the court's order - issued after 4 p.m. on the Friday before Labor Day weekend - and said the organization was evaluating whether it had any legal options. He was especially worried about the decision's effect on students and their families.
"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," he said.
In 2012, state voters passed Initiative 1240, making Washington the 42nd state to approve charter schools. The measure provided for the opening of as many as 40 charter schools within five years.
The first opened at the start of the past school year. This school year, eight more have opened, with classes beginning over the past few weeks. The schools are in Spokane, Tacoma, Kent, Highline and Seattle.
The state teachers union, the League of Women Voters, El Centro de la Raza and the Washington Association of School Administrators were among the groups that challenged the law.
"The Supreme Court has affirmed what we've said all along - charter schools steal money from our existing classrooms, and voters have no say in how these charter schools spend taxpayer funding," Kim Mead, president of the Washington Education Association, said in a written statement.
Citing a Washington Supreme Court ruling from 1909, Madsen said the charter schools are not common schools because they are controlled by a charter school board - not by local voters.
She said she saw no reason to overturn that precedent, and she further rebuffed an argument from the state that the charter schools could be paid for from the general fund rather than money specifically intended for public schools. The state doesn't segregate its property tax revenue for schools from the general fund, and there's no way to ensure the restricted money isn't spent on charter schools, she argued.
She was joined by Justices Charles Johnson, Charles Wiggins, Mary Yu, Debra Stephens and Susan Owens.
In a separate opinion, three justices agreed with the majority that charter schools are not common schools, but argued that the charter school law was still valid.
"Nowhere does the Act identify a source of funding, it merely states that charter schools must 'receive funding based on student enrollment just like existing public schools,'" wrote Justice Mary Fairhurst. "Because the Act neither identifies a source of funding nor commands the use of restricted funds to support charter schools, it withstands appellants' facial challenge and is constitutional."
Gov. Jay Inslee's office and the Washington State Charter School Association, an advocacy group for the schools, said they were reviewing the ruling.
"We are reviewing the court's opinion and will be consulting with the Office of the Attorney General," Inslee's spokesman, David Postman, said in an email. "The decision strikes down the voter-approved charter school system. But until we have a thorough analysis we can't say what that means for schools operating today."
Paul Lawrence, an attorney for the coalition that challenged the law, said the ruling means the charter schools can't open unless they find another source of money.
"All I can say is that no charter school can operate as a public school, and the charter schools would need to find a different funding source than the state of Washington unless there's some action by the state Legislature," he said.
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