Taking the “charter” out of public charter schools

Our state’s voter-approved charter schools law was passed to give some families not well-served by traditional public schools other models to better meet their kids’ needs. The initiative was a limited toe-dip into different educational options.

The very idea of charter schools is that they’re allowed to operate under their own unique “charter,” based on what their board and community support. They can have a different governance model and fewer union and legal restrictions constraining how they operate. That flexibility is inherent to the charter school concept, and it’s what voters approved.

State Superintendent’s proposed rules seek to limit and constrain
Randy Dorn, the elected state Superintendent of Public Instruction, campaigned against the charter schools initiative in 2012 but now says he’s committed to their success. That’s good, but you wouldn’t guess it by the additional rules Dorn’s office recently proposed for charter schools. If implemented, Dorn’s rules would:

  • Make charter schools operate with the same student/certificated staff ratios as regular schools, which some are calling “hiring quotas”
  • Require charter schools to submit their budgets to his office for approval
  • Limit the types of bonuses charter schools can award teachers for high performance

These rules cut to the very heart of what it means to be a charter school. It’s hard to see them as anything other than bringing independent, free-thinking charter schools to heel.

Back-and-forth is revealing
Liv Finne of the Washington Policy Center wrote a blog post about Dorn’s rules that apparently caught his ire. He issued a full response on his state website. Finne’s takedown of that response is worth reading.

Dorn has taken pains to present the rules as ho-hum, standard regulations that he didn’t even know were being drafted. He told the Spokesman-Review “the rules are so routine they were drafted by staff and he didn’t even see them” until just before they were to be approved. He has since delayed the rules and extended the time for public comments.

These rules may be about asserting the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction’s authority over charter schools as much as anything. One observer, according to the Spokesman-Review, thinks “the rules do seem to be drafted to emphasize that the superintendent’s authority over charter schools is the same as over [regular] public schools.”

It’s not even clear that Dorn has the legal authority to implement these rules. What is clear is that the proposal was not well thought out, it was quietly issued to avoid garnering attention, and it cuts against the spirit of charter schools and the legal flexibility they’ve been given to operate. His office needs to rework these in a way that lets charter schools be charter schools.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.