UW professor: SCOTUS ruling could impact charter schools in WA

Jun 23, 2022, 8:55 AM
(Flickr Creative Commons)...
(Flickr Creative Commons)
(Flickr Creative Commons)

A new U.S. Supreme Court ruling for the state of Maine may one day impact Washington’s charter schools.

The Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday in Carson v. Makin that Maine cannot exclude religious schools from its state tuition assistance program.

Some children live in areas of Maine that are so rural, there are only private schools nearby. The state’s tuition assistance program helps families pay for these schools. To separate church from state, Maine had not previously allowed state funds through the tuition assistance program to go toward subsidizing religious school tuition, but the Supreme Court’s decision — based on the reasoning that the law was discriminatory toward religious schools — puts an end to this ban.

University of Washington Professor Hugh Spitzer, who teaches constitutional law, believes the precedent set by this case could affect Washington — specifically, Washington’s charter school program.

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Spitzer said a similar lawsuit in Washington, based on this decision, could see the state told it cannot stop a religious school from becoming a charter school. But because the state has a “crystal-clear and very strong ban on spending any money at all for sectarian schools,” Spitzer believes such a decision would force Washington to abandon charter schools altogether.

“If the Maine decision were not sufficiently distinguishable from our Washington charter school program — and because in Washington, we cannot spend money for religious schools — Washington would need to drop the program,” he said.

However, there is one main factor that is different between Washington and Maine.

“In the Maine situation, they were talking about private schools,” Spitzer said. “And under our charter school law, all charter schools are treated as public schools — they’re simply public schools that are run by a nonprofit organization.”

Unlike the private schools in Maine, Spitzer explained that the charter school program is beholden to the same rules and standards as public schools. For example, teachers must be certified, charter schools must adhere to state standards, and the schools must be open to all students. Each charter school also must comply with the Washington Public Records Act and the Washington Open Public Meetings Act.

“There’s a really good argument that our charter schools — which are technically treated as public schools — would not be treated in the same way [as in Maine]. That is, the state of Washington could decline to allow religious or sectarian schools to become charter schools,” Spitzer said. “But we don’t know — we won’t know until somebody brings a lawsuit sometime.”

And that could become a reality. Spitzer believes the group that challenged the Maine law may also try their luck against Washington’s charter school law.

“It is likely that one of the groups that advocates for the use of public funds in religious schools will eventually bring a lawsuit in Washington challenging our charter school law, and they might be successful,” Spitzer said. “And if they are, then we would have to drop our charter school program.”

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UW professor: SCOTUS ruling could impact charter schools in WA