Ruling leaves charter-school focus on learning

Washington voters agreed to support charter schools in 2012 as an experiment. In effect, charter schools are free to operate with more innovation — or at least with fewer constraints — than typical K-12 public schools.

After Initiative 1240 passed narrowly, it let up to 40 private schools operate in a phased-in schedule over five years and under state-approved charters. Only a dozen are open so far.

With enough time to show results, we may well see students in our state succeeding in private charter venues after failing in public school venues.

A ruling this month by the state Supreme Court removes a potential obstacle to this happening.

The court’s plurality decision authored by Justice Mary Yu upheld the right of charters to receive state funds from state financial accounts that are kept separate from those that provide money to our traditional public, K-12 schools.

This should ensure more charters can be considered.

A 13th Washington charter school is expected next fall in Skyway, according to news reports. None operates in Thurston County.

Charters are funded out of lottery proceeds that are separate from the state general fund that pays for K-12 schools. The lawsuit was the second filed by charter school critics — led by the Washington Education Association — in an attempt to halt use of state tax dollars for private charter operations.

A first suit overturned the initiative in 2015. Lawmakers then made changes in their budgeting in 2016 to ensure charters could be funded out of separate accounts from those funding K-12 schools, and WEA sued again.

In the court’s latest ruling, Justice Yu found the subsequent charter law was constitutional but unduly restricted charter school employees’ ability to unionize.

The jury is still out on the effectiveness of charter schools. But there is a simple reason why charters are worth trying: Some communities need alternatives, and charters have proven successful.

And it is clearly our duty as taxpayers, who pay for the public school system, to make sure all K-12 students finish their schooling able to read, write and function as citizens.

If that means there are private alternatives when the tried-and-true public approach doesn’t work, so be it.

This is exactly why a few Democrats like state Rep. Eric Pettigrew, D-Renton, have joined Republicans to advocate for charters – in a direct challenge to Democratic orthodoxy in the Legislature.

Ultimately, the key is whether charters result in more students graduating from high school with meaningful achievements.

Whatever one thinks of charters, data should drive decisions about our state’s decisions to allow these schools to open and stay in business. The state’s Charter Schools Commission is in a position to weigh the evidence.

In the meantime, Justice Yu and colleagues deserve praise for removing a barrier and letting this experiment continue until more evidence is in.