Why a state supreme court struck down a charter-school law

A week ago, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that the use of common-school funds for charter schools violated the state constitution, and that the state’s 2012 charter-school law as a whole was invalidated as a consequence. I think some charter-school supporters are a bit emotional, from Rick Hess to Robin Lake. Lake went further than Hess and suggested that judicial campaign donations from the Washington Education Association essentially rigged the decision: “most of the judges accepted campaign contributions from the Washington Education Association, the state’s biggest teachers’ union—and also the plaintiff.”

Whether or not you agree with the state supreme court’s ruling, it’s not absurd as a matter of judicial reasoning: it relies on a straightforward stare decisis argument, declining to overturn a 1909 precedent by pointing out the variety of recent decisions that stemmed from the same 1909 opinion. Even the three dissenters did not disagree with the court’s central ruling on whether charter schools were common schools but rather disagreed with the majority’s decision that the entire statute was invalidated.

I have heard Lake’s insinuation repeated in a number of places, and it shows the speakers’ or writers’ ignorance of the larger context in Washington state: the legislature’s continuing refusal to respond to the state supreme court’s demand for the state to fix its school-funding system. Right now, the legislature is being held in contempt of court, with $100,000-per-day fines, until it acts. If you are like Robin Lake and inclined to believe that the teachers union’s donations to the state supreme court justices make a difference, think instrumentally: which do you think the union would care more about, a charter-school law or the entire state’s system of funding education?

Moreso, if you think from a state supreme court justice’s perspective, with the legislature blatantly ignoring an important ruling that you and your colleagues handed down, would you be inclined to give one inch on a precedent defining the state’s obligations to the schools?

The simpler explanation of the ruling is that the supreme court essentially is laying down the law on the state’s schools: “Do not mess with how we look at school financing.”

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