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Washington state high court strikes down charter school law

The Washington Supreme Court struck down the state’s charter school law as unconstitutional in early September, leaving in limbo nearly 1,200 students currently enrolled in charter schools.

The 6-3 ruling overturned a 2012 voter referendum legalizing charter schools. The majority opinion said charter schools are not “common” schools because they are controlled by boards, not local voters, and therefore cannot receive public funding. The court’s ruling takes effect in 20 days. One charter school opened its doors last fall, and an additional eight opened for the 2015-2016 school year weeks before the announcement.

“The court had this case in front of them since last October and waiting until students were attending public charter schools to issue their ruling is unconscionable,” said Joshua Halsey, head of the state Charter Schools Commission. He said his organization is evaluating its options.

The charter school law, passed by a narrow margin in 2012, made Washington the 42nd state to legalize charter schools. The law passed after failed attempts to legalize charter schools in 1996, 2000, and 2004. The most recent campaign to pass the law had the financial support of major school choice advocates, including Bill Gates of Microsoft and Alice Walton of Walmart, according to The Washington Post.

The state teachers unions, the League of Women Voters, and the Washington Association of School Administrators, some of the groups that led the challenge, praised last week’s ruling.

“The Supreme Court has affirmed what we’ve said all along—charter schools steal money from existing classrooms, and voters have no say in how these charter schools spend taxpayer funding,” Kim Mead, president of the Washington Education Association, said in a written statement.

A spokesman for Gov. Jay Inslee said his office is reviewing the court’s opinion and will consult with the attorney general to determine what the ruling means for current charter schools.

The Washington court’s decision comes on the heels of another challenge to school choice in Nevada. In late August, the ACLU filed a lawsuit declaring the state’s new education savings account (ESA) program unconstitutional. The program, signed into law by Gov. Brian Sandoval in June, allows every student enrolled in public school starting in 2016 to get about $5,000 a year in an audited account. Parents can use the money for school tuition at a public, private, or charter school, as well as for tutoring, homeschooling, testing, and education-related transportation.

The ACLU claims the program violates the separation of church and state because taxpayer dollars could go to religious schools.

Supporters of the ESA program disagree. Virginia-based law firm Institute for Justice (IJ) plans to intervene in the lawsuit in hopes of defeating it. In a legal memo, senior IJ attorney Tim Keller said because private individuals, not a government entity, would make decisions about how to use the funds, the law does not violate Nevada’s constitution, according to reporting by the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

“The state does not—and could not—view the funds deposited in any education savings account as furthering sectarian purposes because the state takes no action to influence parents’ genuine and independent choice as to how they use the funds,” Keller said.

— by Kiley Crossland

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