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caption: Families and staff at Rainier Prep, a charter school set to open in South Seattle, at a work party recently. The state Supreme Court ruled charter schools unconstitutional on Friday; what that means for charter schools remained unclear Friday night.
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Families and staff at Rainier Prep, a charter school set to open in South Seattle, at a work party recently. The state Supreme Court ruled charter schools unconstitutional on Friday; what that means for charter schools remained unclear Friday night.
Credit: KUOW

Charter Schools Ruled Unconstitutional In Washington State

Charter schools are unconstitutional, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled late Friday afternoon – dropping a bombshell just days after some charter schools opened their doors.

Washington state voters approved charter schools in 2012, after rejecting them three times.

In a 6-3 ruling on Friday, the high court said that charter schools do not qualify as public schools and cannot receive public funding.

In the lead opinion, Chief Justice Barbara Madsen said the case wasn't about the merits of charter schools, simply whether they were eligible. Citing state Supreme Court precedent from 1909, she said they are not because they are not under the control of local voters.

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run – each charter school is effectively its own school district. But without state funding, they’re not viable, Madsen wrote.

“Nor can it be believed that voters would have approved the Charter School Act without its funding mechanism,” she wrote.

A coalition of groups, including the state teachers union, a group of Washington school administrators and the League of Women Voters, sued the state in 2013 to stop the new charter system, adopted by voters in 2012.

Last year, Washington state had one charter school. This year, eight are opening in Spokane, Tacoma, Kent, Highline and Seattle.

It’s unclear whether the schools will be allowed to operate this year. A spokesman from the governor’s office said the court’s opinion is being reviewed. “Until we have a thorough analysis, we can’t say what that means for schools operating today,” he said by email.

Several of the new charter schools posted on their Facebook pages that, despite the court's ruling, they plan to open as usual on Tuesday, following the Labor Day holiday. Summit Public Schools, a California-based charter chain that recently opened schools in Tacoma and Seattle's International District, posted, "Our community is powerful, courageous and committed. We look forward to seeing each of our student founders on Tuesday."

"As you can imagine, we were extremely disappointed to read this news," said Adel Sefrioui, the founder of Excel Public Charter School in Kent. "We have a number of supporters and advocacy groups in our corner exploring every legal and practical option available to us," Sefroui said. "Excel remains as committed as ever to fully supporting our students and parents in providing the highest-quality public education in the Kent community."

Spokane International Academy Head of School Travis Franklin wrote on the school's Facebook page to assure families that "the ruling is not a criticism of charter schools or charter school operators. It does not immediately shut down charter schools."

The Washington Education Association, the state’s teachers union, issued a statement in support of the high court decision. The teachers’ unions have long opposed charter schools, and WEA was part of the coalition that brought the suit.

"The Supreme Court has affirmed what we've said all along - charter schools steal money from our existing classrooms, and voters have no say in how these charter schools spend taxpayer funding," said WEA President Kim Mead.

Joshua Halsey, executive director of the state Charter Schools Commission that oversees most of Washington's charters, called the court's timing "unconscionable," given that the case has been before the court since last October and schools have just begun for the year. "We are most concerned about the almost 1,000 students and families attending charter schools and making sure they understand what this ruling means regarding their public school educational options," Halsey said.

The Washington State Charter Schools Association issued a statement saying that the organization was "shocked and disappointed" at the court's ruling and would review the decision to determine how it would be applied.

"Our legal options are not exhausted," the organization wrote. "We will do everything in our power to ensure that there is no disruption for the students currently enrolled in Washington's public charter schools."

This is the second time in a month that the state's justices have taken education matters into its own hands.

Last month, the high court announced it would start fining the state legislature $100,000 a day for not coming up with a plan to adequately fund K-12 education.

Read the Supreme Court decision here.

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