WASHINGTON SUPREME COURT FINDS CHARTER SCHOOL LAW UNCONSTITUTIONAL
Olympia, WA – On September 4, 2015, in League of Women Voters of Washington v. State, the Washington Supreme Court voided the state's charter school statute because it circumvents local control and diverts education funds away from district schools, in violation of the state constitution.
Local control of K-12 schooling is essential and required in Washington. Local voters through their elected boards of education are the only entities permitted to govern public schools and receive public funds for "common schools." Yet, the charter statute allowed charters to be authorized and run by private, appointed boards completely outside the control of local voters and school boards. And, the statute required the state and local taxpayers to fund the charters equally with the public schools.
The plaintiffs, including League of Women Voters, El Centro de la Raza, Washington Association of School Administrators, Washington Education Association, and individuals, were "[a]larmed over the lack of local accountability and [the] fiscal impacts of the Act," the Court explained, and sought a judgment that the Act was unconstitutional.
Relying on longstanding and numerous precedential cases, the Court concluded that "Charter Schools Are Not Common Schools" and "The Charter School Act's Funding Provisions Fail."
The Court wrote that "This case turns on ... article IX, section 2 of our state constitution and this court's case law addressing that provision." Article IX, section 2 provides:
The legislature shall provide for a general and uniform system of public schools. The public school system shall include common schools, and such high schools, normal schools, and technical schools as may hereafter be established. But the entire revenue derived from the common school fund and the state tax for common schools shall be exclusively applied to the support of the common schools.
To tap the funding sources identified in article IX, the charter law simply declared charter schools to be "common schools." The law asserts that charter schools are eligible for local levy funding and state funding equal to that for the public schools. The law's intent was to shift school funding from existing common schools to charters.
However, "common schools" have been defined in Washington for well over a century, as follows:
a common school, within the meaning of our constitution, is one that is common to all children of proper age ... , free, and subject to and under the control of the qualified voters of the school district. 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 ... .
School District No. 20 v. Bryan (1909). Several subsequent cases have followed and applied Bryan.
The charter law provides that charters are "governed by a charter school board" which is "appointed or selected ... to manage and operate the charter school," the Court stated, citing the statute. Furthermore, the charter board has the power to hire and discharge employees and may contract with other organizations to manage the charter. Charters are "exempt from all school district policies" and "all ... state statues and rules applicable to school districts," with a few minor exceptions stated in the statute.
The Court concluded that because the charters are to be run by an appointed board or other organization and not subject to local voter control, they are not "common schools."
Funding Provisions Fail
The Court reminded the parties that "when adopting our constitution the people of this state 'endeavored to protect and preserve the funds set apart by law for the support of the common schools from invasion, so that they might be applied exclusively to ... such schools.'"(citing Bryan). The Washington Supreme Court has, throughout the 20th century and earlier, "struck down laws diverting common school funds to any other purpose." The Court cited cases from 1995, 1939, 1914 and 1897.
Under the charter statute, money that is dedicated to common schools would be unconstitutionally diverted to charters, the Court wrote. "'Once appropriated to the support of the common schools,' funds cannot 'subsequently be diverted to other purposes'" even if related to education. "This court cautioned that to hold otherwise 'would be calamitous,'" the Court said, citing an earlier decision.
In conclusion, the Court declared the charter statute "unconstitutional and void."
Director, Education Justice
973-624-1815, x 19