Op-Ed

Ruling’s double-edged sword

Hundreds of students rally Thursday at Summit Sierra public charter school in Seattle's International District. Charter school students, parents and staff rallied to support the schools and to call for Gov. Jay Inlsee and the Legislature to show their support after the state Supreme Court ruled state funding of the schools to be unconstitutional.
Hundreds of students rally Thursday at Summit Sierra public charter school in Seattle's International District. Charter school students, parents and staff rallied to support the schools and to call for Gov. Jay Inlsee and the Legislature to show their support after the state Supreme Court ruled state funding of the schools to be unconstitutional. The Associated Press

The immediate effects of the state Supreme Court’s charter school decision are easy to see. Now parents, many of them poor and minority, who believed charter schools would give their children a better chance can only hope private donors will keep the schools open.

The decision’s longer-term effects are less visible today, but they could be even worse. The court not only pulled the rug out from under parents and teachers, it also painted the state into a corner.

By ruling that state funds can only to go to support schools run by elected local boards of education, the court made it much more difficult for the state to fulfill its responsibility to ensure an effective education for all children. The ruling also threatens important state-sponsored programs like Running Start, educational programs for juvenile inmates and early childhood programs.

But here is the worst result of the court’s doctrine: Under it, the state has no real leverage over an elected local board. Unlike other states, Washington now lacks the power to intervene if an elected local board spends the district into bankruptcy, neglects groups of children or indulges in destructive internal squabbling.

These things happen, and state governments need the authority to force a new start.

As students of big-city school districts, we are convinced that elected boards should be the norm. But things do go wrong. School boards are responsive to politically active groups, especially affluent families and district employees who vote in otherwise low-turnout school board elections. Low-income, minority and immigrant parents have little influence and the quality of schools for their children suffers as a result.

State interventions are and should be rare and time-limited, but they can make a positive difference. California and Michigan have intervened to put districts back on their feet financially; Mayoral control allowed a new start in Cleveland; a state-appointed superintendent is turning around the previously ineffective and bankrupt school district in Lawrence, Massachusetts.

Thanks to the court, the State of Washington can’t do, or even plausibly threaten to do, any of these things. But local school governance messes occur here, just like everywhere else. Even in good-government Seattle, Mayors Norm Rice and Greg Nichols (and Mayor Ed Murray when he was a state legislator) have contemplated a short-term mayoral takeover to end board misadventures and force some serious work on the dropout-factory schools in the city’s south end.

What can be done to restore the state’s power to fulfill its constitutional responsibilities? Well, of course the court could amend its decision to make it clear that the state can fund public schools overseen by the state itself or by entities other than elected local boards. But that’s unlikely because the court would need to invent a whole new basis on which to invalidate the charter school law.

The alternative: The Legislature could enact a law defining and limiting the powers of local school boards. Legislation could also make it clear that the state has the power to take effective actions, like disbanding a negligent board and holding new elections, or breaking up a district and assigning its schools to better-functioning boards.

There is no question the state has the constitutional power to do these things. After all, as the McCleary decision says, the state is responsible for education and it creates local school districts, in addition to other programs, as a means of pursuing its responsibility.

We show how this would work in “A Democratic Constitution for Public Education,” published this year. The key is limited and contingent powers: Local boards can decide what schools will operate in their locality but can’t hire, evaluate or fire teachers or set pensions (schools would do those things); the state could de-certify a negligent or corrupt local board but couldn’t tell local boards what schools to sponsor or interfere with the work of educators running schools. District central offices would shrink because schools could buy the teacher training and other support they needed, not what the bureaucracy wanted to provide.

Under this arrangement, the jobs of everyone in the education system, from the school leader to the legislature, would complement not interfere with the others. On the other hand local boards and the state would have the power and duty to act on behalf of kids in schools that weren’t working.

This arrangement would un-stick the system so that local boards could create innovative schools and search for better options for kids whose odds of success in their current schools are low. Then there would not be so many parents desperate for options that the regular public schools can’t or won’t provide.

The authors are political scientists at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at UW Bothell. Paul Hill, Ph.D., is a research professor. Ashley Jochim, Ph.D., is a research analyst.

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