Politics & Government

Washington charter schools will stay open for now, despite surprise court ruling

Charter schools in Tacoma scrambled to get the word out Saturday that they will remain open in the coming days, despite a state Supreme Court ruling late Friday that cast doubt on their future in Washington.

Meanwhile, a group representing the state’s eight new charter schools said it will ask the high court to reconsider its decision, which declared the state’s system of publicly funded, privately run schools unconstitutional.

The Washington State Charter Schools Association also called on Gov. Jay Inslee to convene a special session of the Legislature to address the funding concerns raised by the court.

“We will have public charter schools in Washington on Tuesday, and I believe we will have public charter schools in the state of Washington one year from Tuesday,” said Thomas Franta, the CEO of the charter schools advocacy association, which is a party in the court case.

David Postman, a spokesman for Inslee, said the governor still needs to discuss the ruling with the state attorney general and the commission that oversees charter schools.

“It’s all new,” Postman said Saturday. “The opinion needs to be analyzed. ... Nobody has an answer yet.”

In its 6-3 ruling Friday afternoon, the high court said the state’s voter-approved charter schools do not qualify as common schools under Washington’s Constitution and therefore cannot receive public funding.

The ruling doesn’t take effect for another 20 days, giving the parties time to file a motion for reconsideration. The Supreme Court justices didn’t say what would happen to existing charter schools after that, but ordered the case to return to King County Superior Court “for an appropriate order.”

The court’s split ruling, issued about 4 p.m. the Friday before a long holiday weekend, took many parents and school officials by surprise. Roughly 1,200 students are enrolled at eight new charter schools throughout the state, including around 400 in Tacoma — the city with the most charter schools so far.

While most public schools in Tacoma aren’t scheduled to begin instruction until Wednesday, Tacoma’s three charter schools started classes about three weeks ago.

All three schools — Destiny Charter Middle School, Summit Olympus High School and SOAR Academy — posted messages on Facebook late Friday saying they would be open for school Tuesday.

Jessica Garcia, a parent who serves on an advisory board for Destiny school, said she spent Saturday morning at the school helping call other parents and urging them to remain calm.

“They just want to be reassured that their children still have a safe place to learn,” said Garcia, who has a sixth-grade daughter enrolled at Destiny. “Every phone call I’ve got, parents are upset, they’re crying. They want reassurance that their kids are going to get the right kind of education.”

Garcia said she wanted her daughter to attend a charter school partly because of the bad experience her older son had being bullied in a traditional public school. She criticized the timing of the Supreme Court’s ruling, saying most students have already settled into comfortable routines in the classroom.

“They’ve already made bonds with their teachers and their environment, and to lose that would be devastating,” she said.

Other groups, including the statewide teachers union, praised Friday’s ruling as helping protect funding for the state’s 1 million public school students. The Washington Education Association was part of the coalition that challenged the state law authorizing charter schools, which Washington voters narrowly approved in 2012.

“It diverts money away from existing public schools at the time the state already is failing to fully fund public education,” said Rich Wood, a spokesman for the Washington Education Association, regarding the charter school law.

In another education funding case, the state is already in contempt of court for failing to produce a plan to fully fund basic education by 2018. In that lawsuit, known as McCleary, the state Supreme Court recently imposed fines of $100,000 per day and told state officials to put the money in a separate fund to benefit public schools.

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