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Originally published Thursday, December 12, 2013 at 9:31 PM

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Judge gives go-ahead for charter schools, but raises funding question

A King County judge ruled Thursday that a bitterly contested state law allowing charter schools can proceed, but the state’s highest court likely will decide its ultimate fate.


Seattle Times education reporters

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A judge’s mixed ruling on the constitutionality of the state’s new charter-school law cleared the way for the first schools to open in 2014, but raised questions about their funding that will probably be decided at the state’s highest court.

The ruling sparked flurries of news releases and tweets Thursday afternoon as both sides claimed victory over whether the bitterly debated law was found constitutional.

Nate Olson, spokesman for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, said the ruling has raised so many questions “There is no way it can’t be appealed.”

Narrowly passed by voters in 2012, the law will allow up to 40 charter schools to open in Washington in the next five years. Charter schools, which already exist in most other states, do not have to follow many of the rules and regulations that govern other public schools.

Even amid Thursday’s confusion over the ruling’s implications, both sides agreed that for now, the process of establishing charters in Washington will proceed.

Both sides also agreed that the decision by King County Superior Court Judge Jean Rietschel strikes down the part of the law that would have made charter schools eligible for state construction money.

Rietschel ruled that charter schools, which will be operated by nonprofit organizations with taxpayer money, don’t meet the definition of “common schools” because they are not under the control of the voters of the school district.

Those voters must pass local tax measures to receive state matching funds for school construction.

Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, whose office defended the law’s constitutionality in the case, claimed victory on the rest of the ruling.

“The court has held the vast majority of the charter schools initiative constitutional, and the state will continue to implement this law,” he said in a statement Thursday afternoon.

Lisa Macfarlane, state director of Democrats for Education Reform, which backed the charter-school law, said the 22 charter schools seeking approval were not counting on state construction money anyway.

“We’re thrilled with the judge’s ruling,” Macfarlane said.

But a coalition that brought the suit, led by the state’s teachers union, likely will appeal the ruling.

“This case is going to go straight up to the state Supreme Court and we should have a decision from them that I think will provide more clarity than the trial court did as to the future of charter schools,” said Paul Lawrence, lead attorney for the plaintiffs.

The coalition filed the suit in July asking a judge to declare the law unconstitutional for “improperly diverting public-school funds to private organizations that are not subject to local voter control” and “impeding the state’s constitutional obligation to amply provide for and fully fund K-12 public education.”

The Washington Education Association was joined by the League of Women Voters of Washington, El Centro de la Raza, the Washington Association of School Administrators and several individual plaintiffs.

The judge ruled that charter schools can be considered part of the state’s public-school system because they are subject to the same educational goals, learning requirements and state achievement tests.

But opponents believe that the judge’s finding that charter schools aren’t common schools means the state cannot pay for them with tax dollars that are supposed to be set aside for common schools.

“The state’s constitutional obligation only extends to public common schools,” Lawrence said.

Much of the confusion after Thursday’s ruling stemmed from questions about what it means for charters to be part of a public-school system but not considered common schools.

Hugh Spitzer, who teaches state constitutional law at the University of Washington, said one problem is that the judge didn’t explicitly say whether charter schools can receive any money raised through state property taxes.

Charters could exist without state property-tax dollars, he said, but the Legislature would have to fund them through other means.

House Appropriations Chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said he hadn’t yet read the ruling, but he doesn’t think it will have much impact.

Even if charter schools can’t be financed with state property taxes, he said, “We use all kinds of money to pay for public schools.”

He even thinks the ruling might not restrict charters from receiving some types of school-construction money.

But he, too, has lots of questions. “We have a lot of reading to do to figure this out,” Hunter said.

Even without the school-construction money, supporters are happy with the ruling.

“If the decision today stands as is, charter schools move forward and operate and get funded, and that is what is important to us,” Macfarlane said.

“We will probably just wait to see what the plaintiffs include in their appeal and then decide whether there are any issues that concern us enough to ask the Supreme Court to review at the same time,” she said.

The first schools could open as early as next fall. So far, 19 have applied to the state charter-school commission and three others are seeking authorization from the Spokane school district, the first district approved by the state to authorize charter schools.

John Higgins: 206-464-3145 or jhiggins@seattletimes.com On Twitter @jhigginsST



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