Politics & Government

Teachers union, others to sue state over new charter school law

Chandell Dixon is shown inside her classroom at Destiny Charter Middle School Thursday Jan. 7, 2015. The state’s system of charter schools will soon face another court challenge.
Chandell Dixon is shown inside her classroom at Destiny Charter Middle School Thursday Jan. 7, 2015. The state’s system of charter schools will soon face another court challenge. dmontesino@thenewstribune.com

Charter school opponents plan to sue the state over a new law that aims to keep the privately run, publicly funded schools open in Washington.

The Washington Education Association announced its intention Thursday night to file a lawsuit over the state’s amended charter school law. Other groups that oppose charter schools will also be involved in the suit, the statewide teachers union said.

Eight charter schools currently operate in Washington, three of which are in Tacoma.

It isn’t the first time the teachers union and a coalition of other groups have challenged the state’s law allowing charter schools, which Washington voters approved in 2012.

The state Supreme Court ruled in the union’s favor in September, striking down charter schools because of the way they are governed and funded.

Last month, the Legislature responded by passing Senate Bill 6194, which tries to correct problems identified in the court ruling by funding charter schools from a different account than traditional public schools.

The bill became law Sunday without the signature of Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee.

It shortchanges the more than one million public school students who are still waiting for the state to meet its constitutional obligation to them and their education.

Kim Mead, Washington Education Association president, on the state’s new charter school law, which the union is challenging in court

Rich Wood, a spokesman for the Washington Education Association, said the group’s lawsuit against charter schools will center “both around the use of state funding, but also the lack of public accountability” for the schools.

The September court ruling said charter schools couldn’t be funded like traditional public schools because they are run by boards that are appointed, rather than elected by voters.

But the Legislature attempted to sidestep that issue this year by funding charter schools from a separate account that contains state lottery revenues, rather than through the state’s general fund.

Opponents of the law said that move doesn’t solve the constitutional problems with how charter schools are governed.

“In its recent charter school ruling, the Supreme Court stressed the importance of oversight by publicly elected representatives. That oversight is completely missing from the new charter school law,” said Frank Hewins, the superintendent of Franklin Pierce School District, in a news release Thursday.

Hewins is the president of the Washington Association of School Administrators, which will join the teachers union in filing the lawsuit. Six other labor unions also intend to be plaintiffs in the suit, including the Washington Federation of State Employees, the largest state employee union.

This is clearly a political ploy and a despicable one...Charters are closing the achievement and opportunity gaps.

Cynara Lilly, spokeswoman for pro-charter group Act Now for Washington Students

Kim Mead, president of the Washington Education Association, said charter schools also divert money from traditional K-12 public schools, which the state is under a court order to fully fund by 2018. In the case known as McCleary, the state is in contempt of court over the Legislature’s lack of a plan to meet the 2018 funding deadline.

The charter school law “shortchanges the more than one million public school students who are still waiting for the state to meet its constitutional obligation to them and their education,” Mead said in a prepared statement.

Cynara Lilly, a spokeswoman for the pro-charter group Act Now for Washington Students, said the groups’ lawsuit is unfair to charter school students and families who fought hard in Olympia to keep their schools open. About 1,100 students now attend charter schools in Washington state.

“This is clearly a political ploy and a despicable one,” Lilly said, adding that the schools’ innovative approaches to education are helping many students succeed.

“Charters are closing the achievement and opportunity gaps,” she said.

State Rep. Chad Magendanz, R-Issaquah, said by passing the new charter school bill, the Legislature “tried to get out in front of any future issues that might be brought before the court.” He said the Legislature took care to avoid classifying charter schools as “common schools,” a category that includes traditional public schools.

If they question the funding formula for charters, they’d also be questioning the funding policies for the School for the Blind, the School for the Deaf, (and) tribal compact schools.

State Rep. Chad Magendanz, R-Issaquah, a supporter of the amended charter school law

Magendanz, who supported the measure, said a legal challenge to the new charter school law could also threaten other unconventional schools.

“If they question the funding formula for charters, they’d also be questioning the funding policies for the School for the Blind, the School for the Deaf, tribal compact schools — all the schools that are in the same category as charter schools right now,” Magendanz said.

Sen. Cyrus Habib, D-Bellevue, said he thinks the Legislature should have placed charter schools under the authority of elected boards to ensure the schools comply with the state constitution.

A proposal from Spokane Sens. Michael Baumgartner, a Republican, and Andy Billig, a Democrat, would have taken that approach. It didn’t pass.

“Our failure to work that reform into this bill I believe will prove fatal, and at the very least imperil the success of this particular piece of legislation,” Habib said.

Leaders of the teachers union said it may take up to two months for the lawsuit to be filed. WEA board members voted to file the suit Thursday at the union’s state convention in Spokane.

The lead lawyer for the plaintiffs will be Seattle attorney Paul Lawrence, who also argued the previous case against charter schools.

Staff writer Debbie Cafazzo contributed to this report.

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1

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