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Charter schools are once again facing a legal challenge in Washington State, but this time, the families with children attending them will be part of the defense strategy.
Twelve families, the Washington State Charter Schools Association and other charter supporters filed a motion to intervene in a lawsuit filed by 15 plaintiffs against Washington State’s charter law.
Their motion was granted Aug. 31 by King County Superior Court Justice John Chun, despite a move by the plaintiffs, led by the Washington state teachers union, to block the families. Charter supporters had earlier filed a motion to dismiss the plaintiffs, arguing they don’t have a legal stake in the case.
Charter school families say they are pleased to join the fray but are frustrated by yet another lawsuit brought against their schools.
“Just like everybody else, I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, not again,’” said parent Roquesia Williams, who has four children in three Tacoma charter schools. “You know, I just wish they would leave well enough alone. We deserve to have a choice of where we send our kids to school.”
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The state, represented by Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office, also filed a motion to dismiss two arguments being used to derail the charter law.
The new lawsuit was filed last month in response to a charter law passed by the legislature in March. The law was an effort to make charter schools constitutional, after the Supreme Court last year ruled the schools could no longer receive public funding because they were not overseen by an elected school board and so didn’t fit the state’s definition of a common school.
Charter schools have a contentious history in Washington State. The voters denied several attempts at passing charter legislation before approving it in 2012. After the law passed, groups including the League of Women Voters, the Washington Education Association and El Centro de La Raza appealed. The Supreme Court ruled in their favor in 2015, roughly a week after charter schools opened their doors for the first time.
More plaintiffs have joined the case this year: the Aerospace Machinist Union, the Washington State Labor Council and the International Union of Operating Engineers. These groups argue they have an interest in the case because their industries depend on quality education in Washington and because charters undermine collective bargaining.
The Washington Education Association, the state teachers union, is an opponent of charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate free of many of the regulations governing traditional public schools. They are typically not unionized.
This diverse pool of challengers against the charter law speaks to a broad interest among the state’s voters in properly funding education for the 1.1 million children in the state, said WEA spokesman Rich Wood.
The charter conflict comes at a time when Washington is being fined $100,000 a day by the state Supreme Court for failing to fully fund public education.
“The problems with this new law are the same problems that have been raised all along for years now,” Wood said.
The new lawsuit argues that charter schools — which will enroll more than 1,500 students this year, most of them low-income minority students — divert public funds to schools that are not held accountable by locally elected school boards.
During the 2016 legislative session, parents, students and charter supporters petitioned the legislature to pass a law that could address the concerns of the court. The legislature came up with a solution that changed the way charter schools are funded. Rather than receiving money from the general fund — as traditional public schools do — they now get funding through state lottery revenues.
The state has filed to remove the argument linking charters to the state’s underfunding of basic education.
“The one defect that the state Supreme Court found was fixed in the reenacted legislation, and now we’re back in court again,” said Rob McKenna, Washington’s former attorney general who now works for the law firm Orrick, which is representing the families. “It’s just incredibly frustrating and wasteful.”
The Washington State Charter Schools Association will pay for the families’ legal fees.
The new lawsuit argues the funding change is not a genuine fix. “Diverting private dollars from the state budget for private charter schools makes the situation even worse,” Wood said.
Charter schools report to a state commission that is appointed by the governor and leaders of the House and Senate instead of a district school board.
"I think it’s a wonderful thing to consider,” Washington State Charter Schools Association CEO Tom Franta said when asked why the schools didn’t quiet that argument by answering to local officials, “but it’s not a reality here in Washington, where districts would rather hold onto that control themselves.”
Franta pointed, though, to Spokane as a “forward-thinking” district that serves as a charter authorizer for its area schools. Many see the relationship between Spokane charters and the district as amicable.
Charter supporters often argue that this freedom from local school boards allows for greater innovation in the classrooms. Through public testimony and interviews, many students have shared how their charter schools made noticeable differences in their education. Smaller class sizes, personalized learning technology and mentoring have inspired them to strive for college and show up for class, goals some said they didn’t have in their former public and private schools.
Seattle Summit Sierra 10th-grader Jalen Johnson said he chose his charter school for the diversity of its students and teachers as well as the charter network’s California track record for college acceptance rates: 96 percent. And he said he’s stuck around through lawsuits and court challenges because of the individualized learning and teacher support.
"I think the idea of having something that’s been so great and has worked out for so many families and parents [be challenged] is frustrating to say the least,” Johnson said. “But I think knowing that we will overcome this just like we did the last time is the shining light at the end of the tunnel.”