Under Initiative 1240, charter schools would operate with as much or more flexibility, access to funding and accountability than allowed under laws now on the books in 41 states and the District of Columbia.
That's what voters will find if they compare the text of the ballot measure with the language of a model charter school law developed by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a pre-eminent booster of the publicly funded, independently run schools.
"Washington would have one of the strongest laws in the country. By strong, we mean it would not only support the growth of charter schools but it would also support quality in the schools," said Todd Ziebarth, the alliance's vice president, state advocacy and support.
Ziebarth does an annual ranking of how well state laws comport with the essential elements of the model law. Maine tops the list in 2012, but it appears Washington would occupy the spot in 2013 if the initiative becomes law, he said.
"It's a game-changer," he said. "Washington is going to go from sort of the backwater of education reform and charter schools to a place where a lot of folks are looking toward as a place moving forward, both in a bold way and in a smart way."
Moving to the head of the class nationally will come at a price for communities around the state, opponents said.
They contend one of the paramount principles of education in Washington -- local control -- is at risk because school districts could wind up with little or no say in what goes on at new charter schools.
"You've got multiple ways to bypass the local school boards, which are the stewards of the local share of public dollars," said Mary Fertakis, president of the Washington State School Directors Association. The group, which represents elected school board members, opposes the measure.
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The first charter school opened in Minnesota two decades ago, and they've been slowly cropping up around the country ever since.
Public tax dollars fund them while nonprofits manage them under terms and conditions of a written contract known as a charter. The length of those charters varies by states and the terms vary by school.
Washington bars them, though not for a lack of trying on the part of proponents.
Three times, the subject of charter schools has reached the ballot, and each time voters rejected them.
It last happened in 2004. State lawmakers approved a law creating charter schools only to see voters repeal it. The Washington Education Association, the statewide teachers union, led the repeal effort by primarily arguing they would divert scarce dollars from classrooms of existing schools.
Earlier this year, a bipartisan group of lawmakers tried again to pass a bill, but the measure got bottled up in the Senate and died. At that point, members of education reform groups like Stand for Children, Partnership for Learning, the League of Education Voters and Democrats for Education Reform drafted the initiative.
With roughly $3.3 million in contributions -- including $1 million from Microsoft founder Bill Gates -- they gathered enough signatures to qualify a measure for the November ballot.
When you read the initiative, you'll see the authors cribbed passages from the failed bill, the earlier defeated measures, legislation in other states and the model law.
"We took the best of what's out there around the country and tailored it to fit Washington," said Shannon Campion, executive director of Stand for Children and spokeswoman for the Yes on 1240 campaign.
She said there were frequent conversations with Ziebarth. While Campion had not compared the initiative and the alliance product, she wasn't surprised to hear it matched up better than any other existing state law.
"Washington is going to certainly be in the 'Best Of' category," she said.
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In 2008, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools set out to develop a model law to help states seed, grow, nurture and monitor these publicly funded enterprises. Its leaders envisioned a template that, if adopted, could help charter schools be an effective alternative to traditional schools and prevent them from falling victim to bad management and closures.
Sixteen people, most educators and all with a degree of expertise in public charter school law, worked on it for a year and a half. They released it in 2009 along with the alliance's first ranking of the states.
The model contains 20 "essential components," including setting no cap on the number of schools and encouraging a variety of boards and commissions to authorize them. It requires that charter contracts include performance measures and that there be clear rules for revoking charters of schools that fail to comply.
Other elements seek to ensure students can participate in interscholastic sports, schools can access public funds for buildings and are able to operate free of many existing local and state education mandates.
At The Herald's request, Ziebarth calibrated how Initiative 1240 stacked up against the final product. He found that, for the most part, it lined up well.
It contains a comprehensive program for collecting data on student achievement and monitoring school performance, including budgeting practices. It lays out clear guidelines for renewing and revoking charters.
It deals with flexibility, funding and collective bargaining as well as any of the states now allowing charter schools, he said.
Where it comes up short is pretty obvious.
The initiative sets a cap of 40 schools with no more than eight established each year. While the measure allows local school boards and a new state commission to authorize charters, the model law envisions an even greater variety.
Also, the initiative welcomes charters for new start-ups and conversions of existing schools but not virtual, or online, schools. The model law allows virtual schools to operate as charter schools.
"The initiative reflects 20 years of what we've learned works and what doesn't," Ziebarth said.
Jami Lund, an education reform fellow with the Freedom Foundation in Olympia, lauded initiative authors for gleaning the best practices of the best laws. Even the shortcoming -- the cap -- isn't a big deal given the historic level of trepidation toward charter schools in Washington.
"I would like to see more families served by schools operated with this level of accountability, but 40 schools is a good start," he said. "One advantage of our state being so late in recognizing that a monopoly approach to education does not serve all students is that we can avoid mistakes evident in states with poor quality laws."
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Opponents aren't concerned with how the language of the initiative stacks up against laws in other states.
They're worried the text permits an end-run around local school districts and the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction by creating a commission composed of political appointees empowered to approve charter schools anywhere in the state.
Fertakis of the Washington State School Directors Association said leaders of the organization believe if a school board becomes an authorizer, its role will be limited to simply giving the go-ahead to whatever proposal comes before them.
If they say no, a charter school operator will go to the commission and leave the local board out of the loop, she said.
Even if the board does say yes, the task of approving or disapproving contents of the actual charter contract will rest with the state Board of Education, Fertakis said.
"That's a misreading of the initiative," Campion said. "The oversight and accountability is first and foremost at the level of the authorizer."
I-1240 vs. model law
The National Alliance of Public Charter Schools has identified 20 essential elements for states to consider including laws governing charter schools. Below is a look at how Initiative 1240 stacks up against pieces of the group's model law. To see a ranking of existing state laws by NAPCS, go to www.publiccharters.org/law/.
|1. No caps.||No. Maximum of 40 charter schools, no more than eight per year.|
|2. Allows variety of public charter schools.||Partial. Allows new start-ups and conversion of existing schools, does not allow virtual schools.|
|3. Identifies multiple authorizers.||Partial. Permits local school board or new state commission to authorize.|
|4. Requires accountability system for authorizers.||Yes. Sets rules for state Board of Education to approve, oversee and drop authorizers.|
|5. Ensures adequate authorizer funding.||Yes. Imposes fee on charter school operators to cover costs of authorizers; requires public disclosure of authorizer expenditures.|
|6. Requires transparent process for review, selection of charters.||Yes. Contains model law elements except those applying to virtual schools.|
|7. Requires performance-based charter contracts.||Yes. Contains model law elements.|
|8. Provides comprehensive monitoring and data collection of student performance.||Yes. Contains model law elements.|
|9. Provides clear process for renewal, nonrenewal, and revocation of charters.||Yes. Contains model law elements.|
|10. Allows contracting with educational service providers.||Yes. Allows contracting with nonprofit education service providers only.|
|11. Grants independent charter school boards broad fiscal and legal autonomy.||Yes. Grants limited fiscal and legal autonomy; does not allow boards to levy taxes, sell tax-backed bonds or use eminent domain.|
|12. Provides clear process for student recruitment, enrollment and lottery; allows preference for children of founders, governing board members and employees selection.||Partial. Provides clear rules for student recruitment, enrollment and lottery; allows preferential enrollment only for siblings of enrolled students.|
|13. Exempts schools from state and district laws, regulations including some teacher certification rules.||Yes. Contains model law elements except does not allow exemption from state teacher certification.|
|14. Exempts schools from existing collective bargaining agreements.||Yes. Contains model law elements but allow teachers to form a union, bargain collectively on campus-by-campus basis.|
|15. Allows charter contracts for multiple schools, charter board overseeing multiple contracts.||Yes. Contains model law elements.|
|16. Makes students, teachers eligible for extra-curricular and interscholastic activities.||Partial. Contains model law elements for students, less clear on employees' eligibility.|
|17. Provides clear rules for special education responsibilities.||Yes. Contains all model law elements.|
|18. Provides equitable funding for operations and equal access to state and federal categorical program funding.||Yes. Contains model law elements.|
|19. Provides equitable access to capital funding and facilities.||Partial. Contains model law elements except does not provide credit enhancement for acquiring, constructing public charter school facilities.|
|20. Provides access to relevant employee retirement systems.||Yes. Contains model law elements.|
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