Educational hardball in Washington State


Note: This post has been updated since original publication

The Washington State Supreme Court just set a new precedent for bad timing.

As of 3:55pm on September 4, 2015—just days before thousands of kids would go back to school—a 116- year-old decision (School District No. 20 v. Bryan) suddenly became the single most important document in the battle for school choice in Washington State. Surprise!

On the basis of Bryan, the Court determined that charter schools are unconstitutional. Releasing their decision in the doldrums of a Friday afternoon before the start of the long Labor Day weekend made the Court seem vaguely ashamed of themselves. Who knew that educational innovation in the home of Microsoft, Amazon, Boeing, Costco, and Starbucks would be determined by a decision from the age of buggy whips?

It’s about the money of course. Taxpayer money. It’s also about democracy and federalism. But mostly money.

Following the money trail

Money for education is in short supply in Washington State. For six years teachers haven’t received basic cost of living pay increases. For the first time in 30 years, many are on strike.

It’s gotten so bad that the Washington State legislature, incredibly, is currently paying $100,000 a day in fines, a penalty imposed by the Court for dereliction of duty to fund equitable, quality education at the state’s regular—i.e., non-charter—public schools.

As the 2012 law establishing Washington’s charter schools is written, charter schools are public institutions subject to the same educational oversight and funding parameters as traditional schools. But here is the dilemma: Citing the 1909 Bryan decision, a taxpayer-funded school is only recognized as a school if it is “subject to and under the control of the qualified voters of the school district.” Hence, the Court determined that charter schools should not receive public funds.

Further citing Bryan, the Court reasoned that:

The complete control of the schools is a most important feature, for it carries with it the right of the voters, through their chosen agents, to select qualified teachers, with powers to discharge them if they are incompetent.

The current decision disqualifies a charter school from receiving taxpayer funds because, while it is required to subject its students to the same measurements of success as non-charter schools, it has greater latitude in how it proceeds and is managed by an independent board.

States’ Rights vs families’ rights

This would not be newsworthy in and of itself—people get cranky about how their money is spent, who has oversight over expenditures, and what to do if things go awry. There’s nothing wrong with battling in the interest of children.

Furthermore, our federal structure encourages states to function as “laboratories of democracy” and reinforces the unique status of the State Supreme Court decision. Bryan may be Washington’s precedent, but observers from the other 40 states with charter schools—7000 of them, in fact—are certainly watching closely. What grows in one petri dish often affects others.

But if you ask the families of the 1,200 Washington children who began their school year at a charter school this fall, concurrently with an order to shut the school down in 20 days, the Court’s ruling is no theoretical exercise in national self-determination. It’s a slap in the face.

These charter schools were duly instituted by processes defined by law, following a referendum approved in 2012. As recently as May 2015, a Washington State Charter School Commission published a Request for Proposals (RFP) to guide interested non-profits seeking to implement charter schools. The first school opened in August.

Among the schools being shut down by the court: a STEM school, a school for students who have experienced multiple traumas, and a Green Dot school whose mission is to serve the most vulnerable students and whose track record nationally is impressive.

Short term pain, long term gain?

It seems hard to believe that the fight for traditional school funding and the charter school case are not related. Taken together, this ruling, the timing of its release, and the $100,000 penalty for non-compliance indicate that the Court is applying pressure to try and answer the root constitutional question: How is Washington going to “make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex”?

Still, as a matter of policy, the decision is odd. Nearby states like Idaho and Oregon have hundreds of charter schools. Why resist in Washington? After all, the performance of public school students throughout the Pacific Northwest is stunningly average—certainly below the hiring criteria of the aforementioned corporate juggernauts.

Regardless of its merits, the swiftness of the decision to make charter schools unconstitutional remains suspicious. What’s the hurry? If the Court is trying to make a point, they’ve certainly gotten everyone’s attention.

Update: The Seattle teachers union voted to end the strike after reaching an agreement with the district; classes started back in full session on Thursday, September 17th.

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