Last week’s ruling on the constitutionality of Washington’s charter school law left many people confused, especially with both sides declaring victory. The questions are unlikely to be settled until the state Supreme Court weighs in.
In the meantime, here’s a little history to help us non-lawyers understand some of the issues better:
1. Even though King County Superior Court Judge Jean Rietschel ruled that charter schools can’t be considered “common schools,” that doesn’t mean they can’t be public schools. The term “common schools” is largely synonymous with public schools, but not completely.
Article IX in the state Constitution lays out several kinds of public schools — common schools, but also technical schools and “normal” schools, the precursors to teachers colleges. All those schools are supposed to be part of the state’s public school system.
The hitch: Only common schools are supposed to be funded from the “common school fund” and the “state tax for common schools.”
Interesting fact: Initially, not even high schools were considered common schools, although that’s since changed. And the state, in defending the charter-school law, pointed to that fact in arguing that the Legislature has changed and can change the definition of common schools.
2. It’s unclear how much it will matter if charters can’t get money from the common school fund, or state property taxes. Some say lawmakers could just fund charters with sales taxes or business-and-occupational taxes instead.
Interesting fact: Rietschel cited a 1909 case, in which the state Supreme Court ruled that a teachers college in Cheney could not receive common school funds to run an elementary school. That case is known as the Bryan case, named after R.B. Bryan, a former state Superintendent of Public Instruction. The college had wanted public funds to run the school as a place where prospective teachers could receive some of their training. One of the main reasons the Supreme Court justices said no: The school wasn’t a common school because it wasn’t “under the control of the qualified voters of the school district.”
That was an argument that charter opponents have made in the recent case, too — that giving tax dollars to schools that aren’t subject to voter control is unconstitutional.
3. No matter what Rietschel ruled, the Supreme Court may or may not agree. So stay tuned.