Last month's Washington Supreme Court ruling that the state’s 12 charter schools can continue to receive state lottery money does not mean necessarily end the battle over the publicly-funded, privately-run schools.
While there’s no immediate plan to challenge El Centro de La Raza v. Washington, the state’s growing charter-school sector, which enrolls about 3,500 students, could still face fiscal, legal and political challenges.
There could still be more litigation over charter schools, said Paul Lawrence, attorney for the plaintiffs in the El Centro case.
Opponents could bring another suit that argues the Washington State Charter School Commission, the 11-member board responsible for approving or denying applications for charter schools, undermines the authority of state schools chief Chris Reykdal: He is the only elected official with a seat (though he usually sends a designee to represent him).
Lawsuits challenging charter-school commissions in two other states, Georgia and Florida, were successful. Those efforts didn’t eliminate charters altogether, said Greg Richmond, CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. But when local school boards or state education departments get to decide the fate of applications to start charter schools — especially in locales that dislike them — their growth can be stymied.
Plaintiffs speculate that the schools could also be limited by the state of their funding source: lottery money. A legal challenge in 2015 dealt a blow to the charter-school movement here: Justices ruled that giving money from the state’s general fund to the schools was unconstitutional. That challenge led the Legislature to pass its lottery workaround the next year.
Projections from the state’s economic forecasting office, included in a 2017 brief filed by the plaintiffs, show that the cost of charters may exceed lottery revenues as the schools grow. Lawmakers have a few alternative tools they can use to finance charters without breaking the court’s earlier ruling, but in case they run out of options and are forced to dip into the general fund, plaintiffs could file another lawsuit.
But charter-school advocates say that’s not likely.
“This is a red herring,” Patrick D’Amelio, CEO of the Washington State Charter Schools Association, said through a spokesperson. The account that funds charters has “ample funding” to support current and future schools, he added, and “any speculation otherwise is a transparent attempt to distract from the Supreme Court’s decisive ruling … “
Charter schools received $25.7 million from the state during the 2017-18 school year, according to T.J. Kelly, director of School Apportionment and Financial Services for the state education department.
The justices’ willingness to give the commission and Legislature the benefit of the doubt in this case, Spitzer said, may have been an “unconscious decision” to avoid the agony of another drawn-out lawsuit like McCleary v. Washington, where the court spent years trying to persuade the Legislature to comply with its mandate to fully fund public schools.
“The power of courts is in the willingness in the other branches of government and the public to accept what they say,” said Spitzer.
After the court’s ruling on charters in 2015, charter-school backers also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the Washington judicial race, funding opponents to justices seeking re-election.
The ruling could have an immediate — if yet unknown — effect in Seattle. Some of charter schools’ harshest critics are from Seattle, where the possibility of charters accessing part of the $600 million-plus education levy proposed by the city stirred condemnation by the League of Women Voters and local education activist and blogger Melissa Westbrook. The charter-school win comes as local voters are assessing the seven-year measure, which also includes preschool and college scholarships.
On Thursday, the Families Yes campaign for the levy spokesperson Sandeep Kaushik declined to comment on the ruling’s significance for the levy, directing the question to the Durkan administration.
But her office’s spokespeople, as well as those in the Department of Education and Early Learning, said the city’s lawyers were analyzing the ruling.
The opposition in Seattle and in other regions is heightened by the belief that the Legislature still hasn’t amply funded education overall. Over the summer, Seattle Public Schools officials projected financial shortfalls and budget cuts as a result of lawmakers scaling back the amount the district can collect in local property-tax dollars.
For now, opponents say they’re focused on continuing to lobby lawmakers for more funds to traditional public schools.
Seattle Times staff reporters Daniel Beekman and Neal Morton contributed to this story.