State schools chief critical of charter school measure

When it comes to charter schools, there are right ways and wrong ways of nurturing them to success.

Washington’s never had a way at all, though Initiative 1240 on the November ballot could provide it with one.

Its authors say they’ve drafted a law that avoids past mistakes made in other states, answers present concerns in this one and lays a foundation for improving student achievement well into the future.

But is the measure before voters constitutional?

Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn doesn’t think so and won’t be surprised if someone mounts a legal challenge — not necessarily him — should the measure pass.

Here’s his argument.

Initiative 1240 creates the Washington State Charter School Commission and endows it with the power to approve the publicly funded charter schools, be they new start-ups managed by nonprofits or conversions of existing campuses.

Dorn’s primary concern is that under the measure the commission would be funded by and run out of the Office of the Governor rather than under the auspices of OSPI.

He’ll have no direct hand in the work it does or the way it does it, which means schools approved by the commission would be unique in one important way: They’d be outside the purview of his office.

Such a bypass runs counter to Washington’s constitution which says the superintendent of public instruction “shall have supervision over all matters pertaining to public schools.”

“I believe the initiative is flawed because it goes around the constitution,” he said. “I do not believe the superintendent of public instruction would have a role in the constituting of a charter school or decommissioning of a charter school.”

Though the commission would be new, the questions it stirs on the breadth and depth of authority of Dorn’s operation are not.

Gov. Chris Gregoire famously tried in 2011 to establish a Department of Education and bring the superintendent’s office under its wing. She envisioned Dorn becoming a subordinate to whoever she put in charge of the department.

The idea never gained much traction. Lawmakers fretted about giving her and future governors too much authority on the day-to-day running of public schools. There also was a bit of concern on whether the proposal collided with the constitution.

Gregoire, as attorney general, wrote an opinion to lawmakers in 1998 that “while the Legislature has many choices in structuring the public education system, the Superintendent is entitled to remain the ‘supervisor’ of the system.”

Dorn insisted Initiative 1240 improperly puts the commission beyond reach in that role.

The current attorney general, Rob McKenna, comes to a different conclusion than Dorn.

“I don’t see any constitutional problem at all,” he said this week. “It clearly is (constitutional) because the schools are public charter schools. They’re organized a little differently and operate under a charter instead of a school district but they are public schools.”

McKenna is also the Republican candidate for governor and he plans to vote for the initiative.

Shannon Campion, spokeswoman for the Yes on 1240 campaign, contended the superintendent’s office will have the “same role” with charter schools that it does with traditional public schools.

As to Dorn’s insistence the initiative seeks to skirt his office’s constitutionally defined power of supervision, she said: “I don’t want to get hung up on one word.”

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623 or jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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