Charters Go Sleepless in Seattle While Teachers Strike

The charter school movement just took a big legal hit in Washington State. The state's highest court ruled that a 2012 law establishing charter schools in Washington, approved as the result of a Gates funded referendum campaign, violates the state constitution. According to the state Constitution, public funds can be used only to support "common schools." By a 6 to 3 vote, the court ruled that publicly funded but privately run charter schools are not "common schools" because their governing boards are appointed by the founders of the schools.

Voters in the state of Washington rejected charter school in 1996, 2000 and 2004. However a pro-charter referendum narrowly passed in 2012 after it received millions of dollars in financial support from wealthy business-related "charitable" foundations. According to a report in the Seattle Times, Bill Gates "donated" more than $3 million, Alice Walton of the Walmart family "contributed" about $1.7 million, and the parents of founder Jeff Bezos kicked in $750,000. Seattle Entrepreneur Nicolas Hanauer with ties to both Microsoft and Amazon added another $1 million. Apparently the judges were not impressed.

In the court's opinion, delivered by Chief Justice Barbara Madsen, the case was not about the merits of charter schools but whether they were eligible for public funds. She cited precedents dating back to 1909 that established they were ineligible because they are run by private nonprofit organizations and not controlled by local voters.

The court case was brought by a coalition of civic groups including Washington Education Association, the League of Women Voters of Washington, El Centro de la Raza and the Washington Association of School Administrators. Washington Education Association is a union representing Washington state teachers.

Currently there are nine charter schools in Washington and eight new one's were expected to open this year. The court ruling goes into affect at the end of September, so there is still some time for legal maneuvering by charter school advocates. The Washington State Charter Schools Association is requesting the court reconsider its decision and announced place plans to hit up "donors" to keep them in operation for the year.

A Seattle Times editorial condemning the court ruling read as a virtual quote from statements made charter school advocates and the newspaper probably should be investigated for bias, if not for plagiarism. The State of Washington is currently embroiled in debate over a fairer school funding system and the newspaper's editorial writers were concerned it would undermine reform efforts. Washington state is being fined $100,000 a day by the state Supreme Court because lawmakers do not adequately pay to educate the state's one million school children.

The Seattle Times also published an op-ed by a charter school teacher bemoaning the impact of the decision on the 1,200 children who attend Washington State charter schools. This is a small fraction of the over 1 million children attending public schools in the state.

The Washington charter school case may have national repercussions. According to a report distributed by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder most charter schools in the United States receive public funds and are defined as public schools under federal and state laws. However, ublic schools are subject to transparency laws while charter schools and their private operators frequently refuse to share information and data with the public. In addition, estimates are more than half of students attending charter schools are enrolled in schools owned and operated by private companies.

According to the New York State Constitution, "The legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free common schools, wherein all the children of this state may be educated." If federal courts uphold the Washington State definition of "common school," New York charters will be challenged as well.

In New York State, the Charter Schools Act of 1998 authorized "a system of charter schools to provide opportunities for teachers, parents, and community members to establish and maintain schools that operate independently of existing schools and school districts." Charter schools must submit governance guidelines, but according to the law "charter school shall be exempt from all other state and local laws, rules, regulations or policies governing public or private schools, boards of education and school districts, including those relating to school personnel and students, except as specifically provided in the school's charter or in this article." The law mandates that "The school district of residence shall pay directly to the charter school for each student enrolled in the charter school who resides in the school district the charter school basic tuition." Opponents of charter schools argue these provisions leave the charters largely unregulated while sapping resources from public schools

Teacher unions are often hostile to charter schools because provisions of the law erode job protection. Employees of a New York State charter school are employees of the "education corporation formed to operate the charter school and not an employee of the local school district in which the charter school is located . . . The board of trustees of a charter school shall employ and contract with necessary teachers, administrators and other school personnel." In addition,

The employees of a charter school that is not a conversion from an existing public school shall not be deemed members of any existing collective bargaining unit representing employees of the school district in which the charter school is located, and the charter school and its employees shall not be subject to any existing collective bargaining agreement between the school district and its employees.

Meanwhile, Seattle teachers voted to strike and schools were closed on Wednesday, the nominal first full day of school. While pay is a major issue, the teachers are also demanding reduced high-stakes testing and teacher input in the selection of assessment material.