With no charter schools in the Tri-Cities, the recent state Supreme Court ruling that Washington’s charter schools are unconstitutional didn’t have a direct impact on students in the Mid-Columbia.
The court said that because charter schools are operated by non-locally elected boards, they aren’t eligible to receive public money.
Now current and former elected state officials and political activists have raised alarms, saying the ruling could be a death knell for other popular educational programs in the region, such as Running Start and Delta High School.
“According to this reasoning, if charter public schools are unconstitutional, then funding for dozens of similarly governed education programs, like Innovation Schools, Running Start, vocational prep, online education and tribal public schools, are also at risk,” said a blog post from conservative think tank Washington Policy Center.
But those concerns aren’t shared by the school districts and higher education institutions that provide those programs.
“At this time, we don’t anticipate any problems,” said Jeffrey Dennison, spokesman for Washington State University Tri-Cities, which launched its Running Start program this fall.
The League of Women Voters, Washington Education Association, Washington Association of School Administrators, El Centro de la Raza and a few individuals sued the state over the charter school law, approved by voters about three years ago. They claim the law unnecessarily pulls money away from public education and that charter schools lack proper accountability.
The court found that because charter schools have appointed — rather than elected — boards and are exempt from other regulations governing public schools, they don’t meet the state constitution’s definition of a “common school.”
“This court established the criteria for evaluating a ‘common school’ ... and warned, the words ‘common school’ must measure up to every requirement of the constitution,” the ruling said.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson has filed a motion for reconsideration with the court.
“The decision not only invalidates (the charter school law) but also unnecessarily calls into question the constitutionality of a wide range of other state educational programs,” said a release from Ferguson’s office, which made specific references to Running Start and Washington State Skills Centers.
The attorney general is expected to provide more details about his concerns as more documents are filed with his motion.
Former Attorney General Rob McKenna and former Gov. Christine Gregoire also have criticized the court’s ruling. The Washington Policy Center added that even Delta High, a science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, school cooperatively run by the Kennewick, Pasco and Richland school districts, is at risk because of its supportive ties with Columbia Basin College, Washington State University and private industry.
But officials with the Kennewick and Pasco school districts reject the possibility that the charter school ruling put Delta High in jeopardy. The school is governed by the three Tri-City districts, and no decisions regarding the school are made without the approval of the three elected school boards.
“I’m not even sure why someone would suggest that would fall in line with the Supreme Court decision,” said Kennewick Superintendent Dave Bond.
It’s not as clear-cut with Running Start, which allows high school students to take courses on college and university campuses for college credit. Columbia Basin College’s board and the regents of Washington State University, the only local options for the program in the Tri-Cities, are appointed by the governor.
But school districts elect to participate in the program, forming a partnership with a higher education institution, school officials said. The districts don’t have authority over college faculty, but they determine which courses meet credit requirements and still provide some services to Running Start students.
The money the colleges and universities receive to teach the students must flow from a school district first, meaning elected boards and their constituents exercise control, school officials said.
However, it wouldn’t hurt to have a clearer understanding of the court’s ruling, and Ferguson’s request might provide it.
“Our position would be we want to make sure,” said Marty Brown, spokesman for the State Board of Community and Technical Colleges. “(The concerns) aren’t directly on point, but clarification would be good.”