Voters Approve Charter Schools In Washington State, 40-Page Initiative Describes Program

News Details

Posted: November 19, 2012
Focus Areas: State Policy
States: Washington

Initiative 1240 in Washington state, the measure to allow charter schools that voters passed November 6, 2012, with 50.7 percent of the 2.9 million ballots cast, provides a 40-page roadmap for the authorization of up to 40 charter schools over a five-year period and the state estimates it will cost just over $3 million to set up the structure to implement the program.

The Initiative, with an effective date of December 6, 2012, that will make Washington the 42nd state allowing charter schools, lays out the purpose and obligations of charter schools, restricts the types of organizations that can start and manage them, describes how they will be funded and overseen, and sets terms for charter school access to surplus district school space and interscholastic programs.

The Initiative, which provides for a state commission and local school district board to serve as authorizers, sets a pace of eight charter schools opening per year and requires annual reviews of operations that will determine whether additional charter schools will be allowed.

Additional information about the measure, including election returns and an analysis of the state budget impact, is available in a section on Washington's Secretary of State website. Other elements of the initiative include:

Priority for opening a charter school will be given to those that serve at-risk students or students from low-performing public schools. Under the initiative, charter schools can only be initiated by “qualified nonprofit organizations approved by the state” and entities that might be hired to actually manage the schools must also be nonprofit.

Charter school application requirements include showing “evidence of need and parent and community support” for the proposed school. The initiative allows conversion of an entire district school to a charter school, as long as applicants demonstrate support through a “petition signed by a majority of teachers assigned to the school or a petition signed by a majority of parents of students in the school.”

Charter schools will be “free from many regulations so that they have more flexibility to set curriculum and budgets, hire and fire teachers and staff and offer more customized learning experiences for students,” according to the Initiative. The same certification requirements will apply to charter teachers as other public school teachers, although the initiative includes a provision that charter schools may “hire noncertificated instructional staff of unusual competence and in exceptional cases.” Any bargaining unit established at a charter school must be limited to employees of the school and separate from units in school districts and other education institutions.

The initiative states that charter schools will be governed by a board and operate according to a renewable five-year contract and function as a “local education agency under applicable federal laws,” including compliance with to Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requirements.

Wide authority will be given to charter school governing boards for services, provision of real estate, as well as school management and instructional services as long as the board maintains oversight of the school, according to the Initiative. Contracts must include provisions that cover the disposition of property if the school fails.

Under the initiative, charter schools proposing to contract with a service provider for “substantial” educational or management services must “disclose and explain an existing or potential conflict of interest between the charter school board and proposed service provider or any affiliated business entities.”

Charter schools cannot levy taxes or issue tax-backed bonds and any debt incurred “is not a general, special or moral obligation” of the state, the authorizer, the school district, or any other state agency, according to the Initiative. Charter schools cannot accept donations from sectarian or religious organizations.

Charter schools will be subject to audits as “determined by the state auditor” and must obey open public meeting laws, as well as all state laws that are applied to the school’s charter contract, and will be subject to performance improvement goals adopted by the state board of education.

Admission of students cannot be limited “on any basis other than age group, grade level, or capacity,” although a charter school must give an “enrollment preference to siblings of already enrolled students.” The initiative does not prevent “formation of a charter school organized around a special emphasis, theme or concept.” The number of students enrolling cannot be restricted by an authorizer, according to the Initiative.

The initiative requires school districts to provide parents and the general public information about the area’s charter school options. If charter school students transfer, the credits they have earned must be accepted by the new school in the same way credits are accepted from other public schools. Charter schools, according to the Initiative, are eligible for "state or district sponsored interscholastic programs, awards, scholarships or competitions."

The funding criteria used for categorical funding for charter schools must be the same as the criteria used for noncharter public schools and charter schools must be included in new local tax levy planning, budgets, and funding distribution. Charter schools can accumulate annual budget fund balances for use in subsequent years.

Charter schools get the right of first refusal to purchase or lease at-or below-market rates surplus or unused portions of school facilities, and, in the case of conversions, can continue to use the existing facility without paying rent, while the district remains responsible for major repairs.

Authorization of charter schools will be by the nine-member State Charter School Commission, with the governor, president of the state senate, and speaker of the state house each appointing three members, with at least one member being a parent of a state public school student. The Initiative calls for appointment of the commission by early March 2013. The state charter school commission, which is to be an independent state agency, can authorize charter schools statewide. Local school boards, if approved by the state, also will be able to authorize charter schools.

According to the Initiative, applicants to be authorizers must provide assurance that they “seek to serve as an authorizer in fulfillment of the expectations, spirit and intent” of the Initiative and will “fully participate in any authorizer training provided or required by the state.” Authorizers will operate under a “renewable authorizing contract” that has an initial term of six years.

An authorizer may delegate its responsibilities to employees or contractors and all authorizers must “develop and follow chartering policies and practices that are consistent with the principles and standards for quality charter authorizing developed by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers,” according to the Initiative.

Authorizers are required to submit an annual report to the state board of education and are exempt from liability for the “acts or omissions of a charter school they authorize.” The formula for a fee charged by authorizers is to be set by the state board of education but cannot exceed 4 percent of each charter school’s annual funding. Authorizers may “provide contracted, fee-based services to charter schools under its jurisdiction that are in addition to the oversight duties," but the services cannot be required and fees must be kept separate and reported to the state, according to the Initiative.   

Authorizers must provide written explanations for denial of a charter application and applicants can reapply to the same or alternative authorizer. Final authorization of a charter school requires certification by the state board of education.

The charter contract must establish academic and operational performance expectations, but the terms may be “refined or amended” after start-up and the collection of baseline data. According to the Initiative, the performance elements of the contract must include multiple measures, including metrics for student academic growth and board performance and stewardship.