Washington News
bellinghamherald.com, January 9, 2013

WA Board of Ed to draft rules for charter schools

By Donna Gordon Blankinship

TUMWATER, WASH. — The Washington State Board of Education is ready to take public comment on rules it hopes to adopt in February concerning the next steps toward opening up to eight public charter schools by fall 2014.

The rules would establish an annual application and approval process, and timelines for school boards that want to authorize charter schools.

The boards could begin applying as soon as April 1 and find out by the end of summer if they can start authorizing schools.

Eventually the state board would set more rules in response to the state's new charter law, including the process for shutting down an unsuccessful school.

In November, voters approved adding charter schools to the mix of public schools in Washington. The state board has been given some oversight over the system.

The ballot initiative also established a Charter School Commission to manage other parts of the process. The commission, which will also approve charter contracts, won't start its work until March.

Before discussing its draft rules, the board heard an outside expert on charter school authorization, who started with an analysis of the new state law and his advice for success.

Design your system with failure in mind so the inevitable closing of schools will go smoothly, advised Alex Medler, vice president of policy and advocacy for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

"Sometimes even the best people will fail," he said.

He said Washington's new charter law sets up the state for success because of its language around authorization and oversight. In national comparisons of charter laws, Medler said, Washington ranks near the top in terms of following advice and preparing to create a quality system.

But all the preparation in the world won't eliminate failures, he added. The key is to close the bad schools and keep opening better ones.

"We look forward to seeing what you do in this work," Medler said. He offered to continue to help the state and to connect Washington officials with people experienced at working with charter schools from other states.

There are about 6,000 charter schools across the nation, overseen by about 1,000 authorizers, the majority of which are school districts.

The state board will be responsible for deciding whether to allow local school board to approve charter contracts. The board staff has drafted rules, with input from board members. The discussion at Wednesday's meeting focused on how to make sure only the best applications are approved and how much oversight the board will have over the process.

Mary Jean Ryan, a board member from Seattle, said it will be challenging to oversee what could become a large system of authorizers - if many school boards apply - setting up only eight schools a year. She and other board members wondered how the state would make sure that the eight schools that open each year are the best possible schools among however many apply.

"We just need to have quality at absolutely the forefront at every step in the process," Ryan said after the charter schools discussion.

The board has tentatively set a special meeting to vote on the first set of rules on Feb. 26. It will have five more sections of rules to discuss eventually, including details about how the board will oversee the authorizers.

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