As parents and teachers prepared for a new school year, the state Supreme Court quietly agreed in August to hear a case that may prove as influential as McCleary v. State of Washington for the state’s public schools.

McCleary was the 2012 decision that Washington’s Legislature had failed for years to live up to its constitutional obligation to adequately fund K-12 education. In the three legislative sessions since, state lawmakers have done so little to comply with the court’s ruling that the justices are now literally threatening to hold the state Legislature in contempt. (In this, they join most of the state’s voters, but that’s a different topic.)

This fall’s state legislative elections and the 2015 session will largely revolve around what accountability lawmakers should face for their failure to meet their constitutional obligation or whether, in practical terms, any kind of accountability at all can force them to pass the revenue increases needed to minimally fund schools.

Part of the legislative paralysis has been conservatives’ insistence that money isn’t the issue with public schools at all — it’s those nasty teachers’ unions, wasteful spending or whatever. Their ideological aversion to public schooling, the growth of religiously based homeschooling and big, corporate money sensing a private-sector market in K-12 education formed much of the coalition that in 2012 — after several previous, failed attempts — finally narrowly passed an initiative authorizing charter schools in Washington state.

And, now, sometime next year, the state Supreme Court will rule on the constitutionality of Initiative 1240. That ruling will impact how and whether nontraditional schools of all kinds can receive public funding in the future. The Supreme Court took the unusual step of agreeing to hear the case even before it had exhausted lower court appeals, on the grounds, essentially, of its importance. Oral arguments are set for Oct. 28. 

Under whose control?

The key to the legal challenge to I-1240 is one of control. Charter schools specifically exist because local school districts don’t control them — that’s their biggest selling point. In theory, by dispensing with the cumbersome bureaucracy of the public school system, charter schools are more nimble, more able to cater to the specific needs of communities or groups of parents or students (like conservative Christians) within a community.

Charter schools take some of the money generated by local property taxes and divert it from public schools to schools that are publicly funded but privately controlled (often by a board or private foundation).

The problem is this passage in the state constitution: “The Legislature shall provide for a general and uniform system of public schools. The public school system shall include common schools, and such high schools, normal schools and technical schools as may hereafter be established. But the entire revenue derived from the common school fund and the state tax for common schools shall be exclusively applied to the support of the common schools.”

The question at the heart of the case is whether charter schools can be considered public schools if they’re operated independently of a local school district: Are they part of the “general and uniform system of public schools” set forth in the state Constitution? If not, then no more charter schools would open and existing ones would no longer receive public funds.

At the same time, in Seattle Public Schools and other districts around the state, nontraditional or “alternative” schools operated within the school district have also been under attack, diluted, under-funded and often closed as districts fear losing critical funding if their curriculums don’t do everything possible to maximize standardized testing performance. 

Fewer options

Charter schools, it turns out, don’t perform any better on such tests than their public-school counterparts — even though they can pick and choose which students to accept and tend to attract parents who are more motivated to participate in their children’s educations.

But in an urban setting, they’ve also been sold as an alternative that can be better designed to meet the needs of, for example, minority or immigrant students.

Conversely, they also drain money and parental involvement from public schools that might be better designed and funded to meet those same needs.

For parents who can’t afford the five-figure annual tuitions of most Seattle-area private schools and whose kids don’t respond well to regimented “teach-to-the-test” schooling, the options seem to be dwindling fast.

As Seattle’s public school system searches for yet another new superintendent, hopefully, the new regime will be more responsive to the grassroots pressure of recent years to break away from reliance on standardized tests as a panacea for everything.

Voter support for charter schools exists in the first place because parents know that not all kids are alike. It’s long past time Seattle’s schools — and Olympia legislators — act like they know it.

GEOV PARRISH is cofounder of Eat the State! He also reviews news of the week on “Mind Over Matters” on KEXP 90.3 FM.

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