Are charter schools public? Washington court says no

This month’s Washington Supreme Court ruling on charter schools should at the very least spark discussion of whether charter schools are public schools.

In a 6-3 decision, the court said they aren’t. It reasoned that the lack of local control and accountability means charters don’t qualify as “common schools” in the language of the state constitution.

The court found that “if a school is not controlled by a public body, then it should not have access to public funds,” writes Wayne Au, a plaintiff on the case. “The logic is simple and compelling, and opponents of public school privatization in this country need to spread that message far and wide.”

Charter supporters insist, of course, that charter schools are public schools. The argument goes something like this: Charter schools receive public funds and don’t charge tuition. They enroll all students for whom there’s room. And charter school laws are enacted by elected legislators.

But in Indiana, over 300 private schools get public funding in the form of vouchers, often enough to cover the full cost of tuition. No one argues that they are now public schools. And charter schools may be open to all, but they tend to attract students whose parents are savvy enough to apply and enter enrollment lotteries and have the means to provide their children with transportation.

The big difference, though, is public control. If you don’t like how your tax dollars are being spent by the local public school corporation, you can vote for school board candidates who agree with you. If you don’t like how a publicly funded charter school operates, there’s not much you can do.

What happened in Washington

I wrote last week about a study by Gonzaga University sociologist Joe Johnston that explained how Indiana came to have an active charter school movement while neighboring Kentucky has no charter schools. Johnston did a similar study, published in the journal Sociology of Education, comparing charter school policies in Kentucky and Washington.

Just as Indiana’s push for charter schools centered on perceived problems with Indianapolis Public Schools, the debate in Washington focused on dissatisfaction with Seattle Public Schools, he found.

After years of consideration, the Washington legislature voted in 2004 to authorize charter schools. But the law was overturned by the voters later the same year. Voters reversed themselves and passed a charter-school initiative in 2012 with $11 million in support from Bill Gates, Alice Walton and others, Johnston writes.

But the law defined charter schools as “common schools” eligible for the same funding as regular public schools. In doing so, the supreme court ruled, it ran afoul of the state constitution and a 1909 court decision that a common school is “common to all children of proper age and capacity, free, and subject to and under the control of the qualified voters of the school district (italics added).

The ruling comes at the beginning of the school year, leaving 1,200 students attending charter schools that have been found to be unconstitutional. The state’s attorney general has asked the court to reconsider its decision, and some legislators are calling for a special session to fix the problem.

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One thought on “Are charter schools public? Washington court says no

  1. How can a school that is not mandated to accept every child who registers be “equally open to all”?
    (Article 8, Sec. 1, Indiana Constitution)

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