Washington state judge draws key distinction between charter, traditional public schools

(freepik.com)
(freepik.com)

A Washington state judge just ruled that part of the state’s new charter school law is constitutional and part of it isn’t. The most interesting part of the decision isn’t which is which, but why there is a distinction in the first place.

The case on which King County Superior Court Judge Jean Rietschel ruled involved a lawsuit brought by a coalition of organizations, including the Washington Education Association and the League of Women Voters of Washington, that claimed the new charter law is unconstitutional because it allows public funds to be used to pay private organizations, which are not subject to voter control, to operate charter schools.

While the decision does allow part of the law to stand so that charter schools can begin to open, Rietschel ruled that charters are not eligible to receive state construction funds, the Seattle Times reported. While charters can be considered part of the public-school system because they have the same educational goals, standards and tests, the ruling says, they nevertheless are not “common schools.” Rietschel wrote that “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 term “common school” was used in the 1800s to refer to public schools that were controlled and funded by the public. Washington’s first Constitution included language requiring the state to provide adequate funding for a common school system.

Charter schools, while publicly funded, have independent boards, and many of these schools are operated by for-profit companies over which taxpayers have no control.

The ruling left open the question about whether other state funds can be spent on charters, and it is expected to be appealed. It is another in a series of rulings that have raised questions about whether charter schools are inherently public or private schools and what the consequences are for public oversight and funding. Critics of charter schools have long contended that private companies that run publicly funded charters don’t act like public organizations and that charter schools are part of a movement to privatize public education in the United States. Charter supporters say that the schools are public.

Washington voters had rejected the opening of public charter schools three times — in 1996, 2000 and 2004 — but this year, a new ballot initiative was passed by a very small margin after it received major funding infusions from a number of wealthy philanthropists, including Bill Gates, Alice Walton, and Jackie and Mike Bezos, the parents of Amazon founder (and Washington Post owner) Jeff Bezos.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · December 13, 2013