It looked like a small deal to me. Sorry, but I’ve heard so much about miracle education reforms and strategies over the years, seen the oversized expectations, the intractable opposition, the resistance and puny results, that my expectations become exceedingly low. Initiative 1240 didn’t look like much — merely creating the possibility of 40 charter schools in five years. In a state this size, what’s the harm? A little experimentation never hurt. A tiny bit of competition might do some good for the educational powers that be.
We can’t have that. One charter school is too many, say those powers that be. The state’s Constitution built an unassailable fortress of an educational system, the “common” schools with a funding pipeline protected by fundamental law, that cannot tolerate even the possibility of change outside the walls.
That’s the implication of a lawsuit filed in King County Superior Court last week. The Washington Education Association, League of Women Voters, Washington School Administrators and others ask the court to declare the work of Initiative 1240 unconstitutional. Voters by a very narrow margin approved the measure last fall, authorizing creation of a few charter schools — tax-supported public schools that operate outside the educational governing structure, free to experiment with curriculum and teaching methods. A state Charter Schools Commission is setting the rules and procedures now. One school district, Spokane, has applied to become a charter school authorizer. The first schools may open a little more than a year from now.
Cease, say the plaintiffs. The state constitution requires the Legislature to provide “ample” funding for a public system that includes “common” schools, “under the control of the qualified voters of the school district.” Those supposedly ample funds are exclusively for the use of the common schools. Charter schools won’t qualify.
There’s more. The constitution requires public schools be “general and uniform.” Charter schools would be neither. The initiative exempts charter schools from rules and regulations that enforce uniformity. Private nonprofits that could contract to operate charter schools are outside the Legislature’s jurisdiction, unconstitutionally so. Charter schools will have an economic impact large enough to contradict the Supreme Court’s ruling in the McCleary case, to fully fund basic education. The constitution puts the superintendent of public instruction in charge of “all matters pertaining to public schools,” and charters will be out of his control. Levy money approved by voters for a different purpose will be diverted.
The supporters of the initiative say they checked all these constitutional issues ahead of time and the are confident it will stand. The state’s attorney general says he will fulfill his obligation to defend the will of the voters, and defend the initiative in court. They say 40 states authorize charter schools, and in every state there have been lawsuits, and in every state they have failed. But, the opponents say, this is Washington. Our constitution is different.
I don’t know how this will turn out. The voters who approved the charter schools initiative should count for something, but the Supreme Court isn’t shy about declaring initiatives unconstitutional, and the WEA has shown it knows how to win. We’ll see.
If the opponents succeed, they will snuff out a little bit of change, a small challenge to authority. The groundswell of interest has yet to rise. Only Spokane has filed to be a charter authorizing school board. Eastmont showed a mostly procedural interest, but put its application on hold. Charters have little appeal for rural and small districts. And charter schools don’t constitute a miracle cure for our educational ills, regardless. The most-cited independent study by Stanford University, recently updated, showed charters produce mixed results — 29 percent do better than local public schools, 31 percent do worse.
No miracles, but at least charters provide a chance for someone to try something different. The educational vested interests will not tolerate even that.
Tracy Warner’s column appears Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 665-1163.