Charter schools measure may face court challenge

OLYMPIA — Washington is laying the groundwork for its first charter schools even as the head of the state’s public school system looks to challenge the legality of the ballot measure that would allow them.

The state’s Board of Education is following the blueprint of Initiative 1240, which voters backed in this month’s election, as it prepares to end the ban on the publicly funded, privately managed campuses.

As the last ballots are tallied, the 16-member panel is starting to write the rules school districts will have to abide by if they want to be able to authorize charter schools within their boundaries. The initiative requires those rules be in place by March 6.

The board also must set guidelines for conducting performance reviews of charter schools and evaluating the law after it is in place for five years.

“It’s definitely a focus for us right now,” said Aaron Wyatt, communications director for the board. “There is a sense of urgency because of the timeline.”

Initiative backers are satisfied with what they’ve seen so far.

“Things are going as they should be,” said Chris Korsmo, chief executive officer of the League of Education Voters in Seattle. “It is exciting. Winning this is exciting. Bringing new opportunity to kids is amazing.”

The power to authorize charter schools, be they new start-ups managed by nonprofits or conversions of existing campuses, is not only delegated to school districts.

The initiative creates the independent Washington Charter School Commission with authority to approve charters. It will have nine members — three each appointed by the governor, the speaker of the state House of Representatives and the president of the Senate who is the lieutenant governor.

Once established next year, it will write its own rules. And it will be run out of the governor’s office.

That’s what has Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn upset.

Dorn contends enabling the commission to bypass his office and approve a school run with public funds is 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,” Dorn said in a September interview. “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.”

Dorn has contacted the Attorney General’s Office to see if there are legal grounds to his concerns, his spokesman Nathan Olson said this week.

“Unless the AG’s office has legal objections to it, Randy’s desire is to challenge the initiative’s constitutionality,” Olson said.

Korsmo expressed confidence Dorn won’t prevail if he proceeds.

“We knew this was a possibility when we filed,” she said. Supporters had lawyers working on the final text of the initiative to withstand a legal challenge.

Dorn’s actions won’t impede the state Board of Education which, coincidentally, he serves on.

“We will march ahead unless our counsel says otherwise,” Wyatt said.

In the meantime, no school district in Snohomish County is making plans to begin authorizing charter schools.

Superintendents and district officials reached this week said they want to see what the state will require of a district that wants to authorize a charter school.

“School boards must determine the role they might play should a charter locate within the district’s boundaries,” said Everett School District Superintendent Gary Cohn. “We need to know the rules we’re going to have to play by.”

Several officials said they aren’t getting inquiries from parents, teachers or nonprofit organizations about opening a charter in their district.

Korsmo said she’s had plenty of contact with people on the subject.

Some want to know how to get involved to start a school, she said. Others work with charter school organizations in other states and want to offer technical assistance.

And, she said, she’s spoken with two people interested specifically in applying to run a charter school somewhere in Washington.

Could the first charter school open by next fall?

She said until all the pieces of the initiative are in place, it’s too hard to predict when or where the first classes will convene.

“I won’t rule it out,” she said. “I think it’s a pretty tough timeline.”

Herald writer Amy Daybert contributed to this report. Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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