Charter school advocates undeterred, will fight second lawsuit

The News Tribune

Washington charter school advocates announced Tuesday that they plan to intervene in a lawsuit filed earlier this month that challenges the state’s newest charter school law.

A dozen families, including three whose children attend charter schools in Tacoma, are named as interveners in the latest legal motion, which will be filed in King County Superior Court.

The Washington State Charter Schools Association, along with two of Tacoma’s three charter schools, are also part of the legal counter-action announced Tuesday.

The most recent lawsuit challenging charter schools was filed in King County in early August by advocacy groups including El Centro de la Raza, the League of Women Voters and the Washington Association of School Administrators. Other plaintiffs include four individuals and the state’s largest teachers union —the Washington Education Association — as well as other labor groups representing Boeing machinists, Teamsters and the state labor council.

Charter advocates said Tuesday that they plan to file a court motion seeking to dismiss the “organizational plaintiffs” from the August lawsuit. They say in a news release that those organizations are attempting to “rehash policy arguments in a courtroom by recasting them as constitutional concerns.”

But WEA spokesman Rich Wood said the new law, approved by the Legislature in March, contains some of the same flaws that prompted an earlier court challenge. That challenge led to a September 2015 state Supreme Court decision declaring the state’s first charter school law unconstitutional.

Changing the way charter schools are funded fails to address the fact that charters are not accountable to voters, Wood said. That was one of the points in the Supreme Court ruling, which invalidated a 2012 voter-approved initiative that first created charter schools in Washington.

The justices said that charter schools, which are publicly funded but operated and governed by appointed rather than elected boards, don’t qualify as common schools under the state constitution. The court said charters couldn’t be funded in the same way as traditional public schools.

The new law seeks to address court concerns by changing the funding source for charters. Instead of general fund dollars, which pay for traditional public schools, charters now draw state funding from a separate account that includes state lottery revenues.

State Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, said in a release supporting charters that he believes the new law addresses the court’s concerns. He called the lawsuit filed by charter opponents “a crass maneuver that puts students in the crosshairs of a battle we don’t need to have.”

The state charter association maintains that the new law approved by legislators was carefully vetted by legislative staff attorneys so that it would meet the requirements of the state constitution.

Meanwhile, eight charter schools around the state say they are back in business this year. Most have expanded and added new grade levels this year, and three additional charters are scheduled to open in the 2017-18 school year.

School has already begun at two Tacoma charters, Summit Olympus High School and Destiny Middle School. The school year is scheduled to start Aug. 31 at SOAR Academy, Tacoma’s third charter.

Gustavo Cueva, whose daughter is a 10th-grader in her second year at Summit Olympus, is one of the interveners named in the advocates’ legal motion.

He said last school year’s Supreme Court ruling and subsequent legislative battle to save charters was “a little concerning.” But in the end, he said, it was “a blessing” for his daughter, Tatiana.

“She really got involved in the case and in the hearing and is still involved,” he said.

“We are proud of how hard we fought during the legislative session to save our schools, and we are ready to keep fighting,” said Shirline Wilson, a Seattle parent of a charter school student. “We will not be intimidated by lawsuits.”

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635, @DebbieCafazzo