Initiatives often need clarification by courts

Not getting the answer they wanted from voters last fall, opponents of the charter school initiative are continuing their fight in the courts. A coalition led by the Washington Education Association filed a lawsuit in King County Superior Court last week arguing that Initiative 1240 violates the state Constitution.

The lawsuit relies on the argument that the Charter School Act “improperly diverts public school funds to private organizations that are not subject to local voter control and by impeding the State’s constitutional obligation to amply provide for and fully fund K-12 public education.”

In the campaign against the initiative last fall, the WEA and others suggested charter schools would drain state funding from public schools. Voters clearly rejected that line of reasoning.

Voters accepted the idea that charter schools are public schools released from traditional limitations, such as strategically altering class sizes and hiring and firing teachers based on performance or school priorities. They are free to change their school calendars independently of the school districts in which they reside.

The voter-approved measure specifies that state funding will follow students to charter schools. Because the state allocates funding on a per-student basis, public schools, which include charter schools, receive the same amount of state funds.

It’s a different situation for private schools. If students currently attending private schools returned to the public education system, including a charter school, that would automatically increase public school funding.

Charter school opponents made a point, however, that there are economies of scale by containing the current public school population within existing physical buildings. A new school would add incremental expenses for utilities and janitorial services that do not already exist.

This is a concern, but I-1240 allows for existing schools to be converted into charter schools, and there are enough underutilized school buildings in districts likely to develop a charter school to mitigate this problem.

The clear message from Initiative 1240 is that Washington voters want a public school system that embraces more innovation. They especially wanted to meet the needs of low-income, high-risk children who often struggle in traditional classrooms. The Charter Schools Act was designed primarily to serve that demographic.

But the coalition’s lawsuit is appropriate.

Seeking a court ruling on the constitutionality of voter initiatives has become commonplace in Washington for good reason. Initiatives don’t go through the rigorous vetting process of legislative measures, and are sometimes poorly written. Witness the state Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the two-thirds requirement on the Legislature to raise taxes.

We hope the courts deal with the lawsuit quickly. It’s fortunate that no district has planned a charter school to start this fall. Getting a decision before a charter school launches minimizes the disruption that this lawsuit, and its outcome, may cause.