March 14, 2013 | Vol. 116 -- No. 47

Charter school lawsuit comes a little too early

In our opinion

It’s too bad last fall’s Initiative 1240 allowing for creation of charter schools didn’t pass by a wider statewide margin. If it had, it would have been easier to claim those filing a lawsuit seeking to overturn the results weren’t hearing what voters were saying – that our public school system needs reforms.

The Washington Education Association, League of Women Voters of Washington and Chicano/Latino civil rights organization El Centro de la Raza filed a lawsuit Feb. 27 with the state Attorney General’s office challenging the constitutionality of I-1240. According to a news release, the lawsuit claims the initiative is unconstitutional mainly because it detracts from the state’s “paramount duty” to provide for basic K-12 education by diverting state funding away from public schools, and mandating use of “local voter-approved levy funds for a purpose other than the purpose for which the voters approved the levies.”

The lawsuit also contends 1240 is unconstitutional because public funds would be used for private schools not subject to voter control, would be outside the supervision of the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and violates the constitution’s “general and uniform” requirement because charter schools would be outside most regulations governing public schools, including those defining elements of basic education.

There are merits to this argument. The state Legislature is struggling right now with a very difficult budget, one attempting to bridge a nearly $1 billion deficit while also meeting state Supreme Court requirements laid out in the 2012 McCleary decision to “amply fund” basic education.

The Court said a lot in McCleary. It ruled the state was violating its constitutional “paramount duty” by not amply funding education, defining amply as “fully, sufficient, and considerably more than just adequate.”

But the Court also said it’s the Legislature’s job to provide specific details on how to do this, limiting the judiciary to an interpretative role. Without seeing exactly how the Legislature intends to meet both the Court and voters’ decisions, the lawsuit is really an attempt to have the judiciary make law, not interpret it.

But as we said above, there are merits to the lawsuit. The state is working with a limited amount of money needed to amply fund basic education by 2018 and meet other needs as well. Throwing charter schools into the mix takes another slice out of that pie.

The initiative also exempts charter schools from meeting many of the same state requirements and mandates other public schools must. We wonder how successful many public schools might be if they enjoyed the same latitude.

But there are also merits to the election results creating charter schools, and the WEA and its allies would be wise to consider those. The results may not be a loud cry for charter school creation, but neither are they a ringing endorsement of our current public school system.

I-1240 passed by a 50.69 percent margin, carrying 18 of 39 counties. But in six of those 21 counties voting no, including Spokane, the differences were very close to 50-50 splits.

To us those results indicate voters see problems with our public schools. While many aren’t convinced charter schools are the answer, many believe something different needs to be done.

In filing the lawsuit it’s as if the WEA in particular wants to head off possible problems in the current system that might be exposed through the creation of charter schools. They would be better advised, and the taxpaying public footing part of the lawsuit bill, and better served, if they waited and allowed the Legislature do what the Court said was its duty – create specifics on how a charter school system will function.

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