Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Decision on the Constitutionality of Washington's Charter Schools: They Do Not Fit Within the Uniform System

Just two weeks after hearing arguments regarding the constitutionality of Washington's Charter Law, the trial court has issued its opinion.  The court rejected plaintiffs' claims that legislature had improperly delegated its educational duties and that the funding mechanisms for the charters were unconstitutional.  The court, however, agreed with one of the plaintiffs' key theories and issued language making the point that anti-charter advocates have been screaming for over a decade.  On the question of whether charter schools are "common schools" and part of the constitutionally required "general and uniform system of education," the court wrote that under existing case law in the state:

the legislature cannot "by any designation or definition" establish a common school that does not meet the minimum constitutional criteria.  [That precedent] has not been overruled. . . . A charter school cannot be defined as a common school because it is not under the control of the voters of the school district.  The statute places control under a private non-profit organization, a local charter board and/or the Charter Commission.

But the court followed that holding with the conclusion that, on their face, charter schools were not  inconsistent with the obligation to provide an adequate education.  To make that claim, the plaintiffs will have to show an actual deficiency in the quality of particular charter schools.  The court said the same in regard to whether the Act removed the State Superintendent's constitutional supervisory authority.  While the Act potentially could remove the Superintendent's authority, the court indicated that the statute on its face was did not require a removal of authority.  Thus, plaintiffs would need to demonstrate some specific factual instance where this ocurred.

The Center for Educational Reform, a charter advocacy group, rushed to ward off the notion that the case was a loss for charters.  In its press release, it wrote:

Egged on by hyperbolic media headlines, teacher union chiefs and their anti-reform surrogates declared the Washington state charter school law unconstitutional, treating it as the kiss of death to innovative educational solutions in the Evergreen State. However, the ruling actually upholds the law’s constitutionality, albeit not to its fullest, which no doubt sets up an appeal decision in an attempt to satisfy one side or the other.

. . .

According to leading interpretations of the judgment, the law itself is constitutional, allowing for the approval of charter schools to move forward in 2014. But the judge also ruled charter schools don’t fit the definition of a “common school” stipulated in the state constitution, which could present a barrier to receiving facilities funding from the state budget.

At the end of the day, all of this represents the feeble attempt at which the teacher unions and like-minded allies are trying circumvent the democratic process and impose their will on students and families in need of better schooling options. . . .

By "leading interpretations," the Center means a local newspaper, not a legal scholar.  My reading is that holding that charters are outside of the definition of common schools is huge because the state has a constitutional obligation to common schools, but none to charters, even if charters might otherwise be legally created.  This is key because when budgets are lean the constitution will demand that common schools are first in line.  Moreover, the court left open the availability of a factual legal challenge to charters' qualitative adequacy and their supervisory structure.  

Does this mean Washington cannot create charters? No.  Does it mean that charters lack the unfettered access to funding and freedom from standards that charter advocates want?  Yes.

With that said, this case will undoubtably make its way to the state supreme court for the final word.

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/education_law/2013/12/decision-on-the-constitutionality-of-washingtons-charter-schools-they-do-not-fit-within-the-uniform-.html

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