Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Washington State Supreme Court: Charters Are Unconstitutional

Posted By on Wed, Sep 9, 2015 at 10:35 AM

I think this caught most people by surprise. It certainly surprised me. The Washington State Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that charter schools are unconstitutional. The reason they gave is, charters don't fit the definition of "common schools" and so they can't be publicly funded.
In the ruling, Chief Justice Barbara Madsen wrote that charter schools aren’t “common schools” because they’re governed by appointed rather than elected boards.

Therefore, “money that is dedicated to common schools is unconstitutionally diverted to charter schools,” Madsen wrote.
Charters weren't allowed in Washington until they were approved, barely, by the voters in 2012. The ruling puts the nine charters which have been set up, and their students, in jeopardy.

I'll be surprised if this ruling stands for long. People are already clamoring for a special legislative session to fix the problem. And some heavy hitters put up lots of money to help pass the charter school referendum, including Bill Gates ($3 million), Alice Walton of the Walmart family ($1.7 million) and Amazon's Mike Bezos ($750,000), and they'll likely bring some serious pressure to bear. Just today, the schools stated they'll stay open this year using private donations if necessary.

Whether or not the legislature figures out a way to keep the schools open, and regardless of the constitutionality of the law, the issues raised in this fight are important. Charters are only marginally accountable to the public which supplies their funding. Financially they're far less transparent than school districts. Here in Arizona, government oversight of the schools is minimal, and according to one of the most comprehensive looks at charters, the CREDO studies out of Stanford, charters are most successful in states where there is sufficient oversight to close bad schools, something that rarely happens here.

The schools' appointed boards are often stacked with members of the charter holder's family and friends, meaning they aren't directly accountable to the public or even to the parents of the kids at the school. In Arizona and most other states, we know very little about how the charter's money is spent. We rarely know teacher salaries or the details of their purchasing policies. The problem is compounded when the schools are run by Education Management Organizations which suck up the state funds and hide them behind a for-profit firewall where the money becomes the property of "the invisible hand of the marketplace," which can dole out the money as the hand sees fit without all that pesky government oversight getting in the way.

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