Chaos For Students In Washington State

By: Paul O'Neill

Later this week Lauren Morando Rhim, Executive Director of NCSECS, will be moderating a panel in Seattle on special education in charter schools. There is nothing unusual about that – NCSECS does its best to contribute to conversations whenever asked to participate. But on Friday, the Washington Supreme Court struck down the state’s charter schools law. The ruling determined that charter schools aren’t “common schools” as defined in the state constitution because they are governed by appointed, rather than elected, boards. The state’s constitution allows only common schools to be publicly funded. The court’s timing was unfortunate – they have been considering the case for a year and didn’t announce their ruling until the start of the new school year, leaving 9 charter schools and the students enrolled in them in limbo. At this point, it isn’t clear whether those schools will have to shut down now or will be allowed to finish out the year. 

In one sense this ruling is a shock – it is the first instance of a state charter law being wholly invalidated, and the timing of the decision seems almost cruel. But the considerations at issue are really the fundamental ones underlying fights over charter schools since their inception. What makes a school a public school? Do districts have a monopoly on providing public education? Should they? Do teachers unions, who in Washington and many other states have pushed back hard against charters, have a similar sort of entitlement? From our perspective, decisions such as the one at issue here miss the fact that public education is evolving and should be driven by a commitment to meet the needs of students and families and not by deference to a bureaucratic structure that often seems better for the adults in the system than for the most vulnerable children. 

Our organization focuses exclusively on some of the most vulnerable children in charter schools; those with disabilities. We are concerned about the many special education students who are likely to be impacted by the turmoil in Washington as the court’s order is carried out. Over the next several weeks, we urge state authorities to take all possible steps to limit the chaos and disruption in the lives of students.  In the longer term, we advocate for a final determination on the viability of charter schools in Washington that is fair, equitable, outcomes-based and, above all, driven by what is good for children.