Charter schools, Washington’s innovative public schools that provide an alternative to the traditional K-12 school district model and focus on serving students from low-income families, recently went before the state Supreme Court to defend their right to stay open.
Opponents argue that Washington’s charter school law violates the state constitution’s requirements for a uniform system of public schools.
In 2012, Washington voters approved an initiative to allow for a small number of publicly funded independent charter schools. Opponents filed a lawsuit challenging the schools’ source of funding. Shortly before the start of the 2015 school year, the Supreme Court ruled that charter schools were unconstitutional.
There was no question in my mind at that point that we needed to act legislatively to keep these schools open by adjusting their funding source.
I remember the floor vote on March 9, 2016, quite well. I served in the state House at the time and came in for the vote shortly after the birth of my daughter, Clara.
I stood on the floor and announced that I had a new reason to care about the future of education in Washington, proudly voted to continue charter schools, then quickly headed back to be with my wife and newborn daughter.
The Legislature passed the bill with bipartisan support. We made it clear that charter students should continue to receive a high-quality education under Article IX of the Washington State Constitution. All this was possible because charter schools are public schools.
Today Clara is 2 years old. I know the world in which she will grow up is going to be very different from the world in which I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s.
Education, from early-learning programs to K-12 schools to colleges and universities, will take new forms in the 21st century. While we should approach change with caution, we should not be afraid of new options for parents and students.
Charter schools have been operating successfully in most other states for years; today there are 3.2 million charter students in 43 states and the District of Columbia.
Two things are clear to me as the Supreme Court again deliberates on the future of Washington’s 10 charter schools and their 1,700 students.
First, families are demanding options. Many children are able to get a terrific education in a traditional public school, but children growing up with economic disadvantages often have educational disadvantages as well.
It’s no wonder that parents would seek alternatives. Should we not try to make responsible policies that provide for a more equitable system?
Second, public charter schools have proven their value to students, including minority children and children from low-income families.
Every time I have been around charter students, families and teachers, I have been impressed by their enthusiasm and love for their schools. And Washington state assessment results have shown charter students making significant gains in math and reading scores.
What about the long-term prospects for charter school students? While Washington state charters are only a few years old, a study of these schools in Florida and Chicago by the American Institutes for Research shows that their students are significantly more likely to graduate from high school and enroll in college.
Let’s hope the Supreme Court sees their value as well. A court ruling against charter schools would be a step backward. We need more, not fewer, options for students and their families.
State Sen. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup, represents the 25th Legislative District and is the ranking member on the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee. Reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.