A state high court decision upholding the Washington state charter school system marks the end of a decades-long political fight over the publicly funded, privately run schools.
Washington in 2012 was one of the last states to set up a charter school law, though it was among the first to try to institute the education model.
Fierce fighting to set up the schools has spanned the past 24 years in legislatures, elections and the courts.
The court upheld the new lottery-supported funding model but warned against using state general fund money to compensate for the growing number of children expected to enroll as the sector grows.
The decision also preserves the 12 schools that are now serving about 3,400 students.
A charter school law had been regularly proposed in the state Legislature since at least 1994, shortly after Minnesota in 1991 became the first state in the country to allow public dollars into schools operating free of most state and district rules.
And though it was signed into Washington law in 2004, the statewide teachers’ union and other opponents collected enough petition signatures to force it onto the ballot. Voters then rejected the charter school system for a third time.
Presented again in the 2012 election, it was approved by a narrow margin after being aided by millions of dollars from wealthy school choice supporters.
That made Washington the only state in the country to get a charter school law approved through a ballot measure, as the other 43 states have adopted it through the state legislatures, according to Nina Rees, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
That ballot measure was soon struck down by the state Supreme Court over funding issues.
The Supreme Court ruling was also a first, Rees said, making Washington the only state where the charter school model has ever been ruled unconstitutional, though the question has been considered in California, Utah and Michigan.
The Louisiana Supreme Court earlier this year also ruled in favor of charter schools and a similar case is now pending at the highest court in Mississippi.
After the high court ruling, the Washington Legislature quickly reworked a new law with a lottery money solution instead. The first schools that had already opened while left in limbo were financed in part by Microsoft co-founder and Seattle native Bill Gates.
Urged to approve it to honor the will of the voters, Gov. Jay Inslee in 2016 refused to sign or veto the proposal. He cited his concerns on accountability but allowed the measure to become law without his signature.
Challenged yet again, the Supreme Court ruled a second time on the charter law last Thursday. This time, the court upheld the new funding model.
The unusually long saga in Washington state has been defined by both primary players funding the debate.
“Opponents of charter schools are fiercely against any school that isn’t fully operated by a school board,” Rees said.
The Washington Education Association has led the resistance, backing the petition effort in 2004 and both Supreme Court challenges. Teachers’ unions are among the critics who reject charters as drains on the cash-starved schools that educate the vast majority of students. Public school advocates also loathe those programs for eroding the neighborhood schooling model that defines communities.
Rich Wood, a spokesman for the Washington teacher’s union, said charters had failed many times over the years thanks to Washington’s own state Constitution.
“We have some of the strongest constitutional language guaranteeing an amply-funded, quality, public education for every child and that’s what we’ve focused on all along. That constitutional language is probably the strongest in the entire country,” Wood said.
Charters aren’t subject to the same rules or standards governing traditional public schools but are embraced by Gates and other deep-pocketed advocates who see them as investments in developing better and different ways to educate those who struggle in traditional school systems, particularly children in poor, urban areas.
Studies on academic success are mixed.
“There’s a lesson here that with enough persistence and with enough money, we can overcome many, many barriers,” said Kevin Welner, a University of Colorado professor and the National Education Policy Center director. “I have to wonder if all that effort and all that money went into actually improving the state’s common schools, that the students would be better off.”