Up next for WA charter schools: plans and lawyers


SEATTLE — Now that voters have spoken about charter schools will the new, independent public schools be an option at the beginning of the next academic year?

It seems unlikely.

Voters narrowly approved Initiative 1240 earlier this month, but opening charter schools by 2013 would require many things to happen quickly — and there’s a strong possibility that the state’s top education officer will sue to block them.

First the state Board of Education has to figure out the next steps. The board has until March 6 to adopt rules to govern most aspects of charter schools in Washington. Board spokesman Aaron Wyatt said that schedule is tight, so people shouldn’t expect them to beat their deadline.

Next on the agenda: The new Washington Charter School Commission will be formed and begin its work. The independent state agency created by the initiative will be authorizing and supervising the new entities.

The commission will be made up of nine members, three appointed by the governor, three by the president of the Senate and three by the speaker of the House. They will be supported by staff with a budget of an estimated $3 million a year.

People who want to open a charter school in Washington will need to wait for the commission to get settled before they open the application process. It’s not known how long the application process will take — since the rules have not been written — but the process in New York state, for example, takes about four months from the initial filing to final approval.

The new law would open as many as 40 charter schools over five years.

Under the terms of the initiative, any nonprofit organization could start a charter school here if their plan is approved by either the new statewide commission or a local school board that has been authorized by the state school board to approve charter schools.

Out-of-state groups have offered to help Washington make the transition toward becoming the 42nd state with charter schools.

“There’s really been an outpouring of support that I couldn’t have predicted,” said Chris Korsmo, executive director of the League of Education Voters, who worked on the Yes on 1240 campaign and whose group advocates for school reform.

She called the idea of opening the first charter school by fall 2013 a tall order and probably missing the point of the initiative. She said the goal is to insure the new schools are of the highest quality and focus on offering a great education to low income and minority kids.

The League of Education Voters has heard from parents, teachers and school leaders who are interested in being involved in the new schools, as well as from charter school operators in other states, Korsmo said.

Robin Lake, director of the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education, and a national expert on charter school research, said the most important key to success for charters in Washington is the 20 years of experience to draw on from the 41 states that already allow the independent schools.

The schools are most likely to succeed if the authorizers focus on good performance management, Lake said.

The commission and any school boards that are allowed to authorize charters must make sure the schools they approve have more than just a good idea. They need to have the ability to create a great education programs, do effective planning, manage their budget, roll out well and meet their goals, she said.

“It takes commitment and on-the-ground work after the law is implemented,” she said.

Finding a balance between regulations and freedom for creativity helped lead charters to success in other places, like Denver, New York City and New Orleans, she said, noting failures in states such as Arizona are due to weak oversight and accountability.

The long-term goal is about improving education for all kids and that can happen if the people who run traditional and charter public schools learn from each other, she said. “This is about more good schools. It’s not about charter schools.”

One significant hurdle is Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn, who says he may sue to stop the initiative from establishing a parallel department of education.

Initiative 1240 was unconstitutional because it would set up a separate school system with a board that isn’t elected by the people, he said.

“It is clearly circumventing the constitution,” he said, because the state constitution established an elected superintendent of public instruction to oversee all public schools.

He has talked to the attorney general’s office and state lawmakers about his concerns and hopes the Legislature will find a way to fix the new law, but is willing to bring a constitutional challenge all the way to the Washington Supreme Court, if necessary.

On the Net:

State Board of Education: http://sbe.wa.gov/charters.php

Center on Reinventing Public Education: http://www.crpe.org/