Up next for charter schools: plans, panels and lawyers

It may take more than a year to get doors open

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SEATTLE -- Now that voters have spoken about charter schools, will the new, independent public schools be an option at the beginning of the next academic year?

It seems unlikely.

Voters narrowly approved Initiative 1240 this month, but opening charter schools by 2013 would require many things to happen quickly -- and there's a strong possibility that the state's top education officer will sue to block them.

First, the state Board of Education has to figure out the next steps. The board has until March 6 to adopt rules to govern most aspects of charter schools in Washington. Board spokesman Aaron Wyatt said that schedule will be tough to meet, let alone beat.

Next, the Washington Charter School Commission, an independent state agency, will be formed to authorize and supervise the new entities.

The commission will have nine members -- three appointed by the

governor, three by the president of the Senate and three by the speaker of the House. They will have a staff an a budget of about $3 million a year.

People who want to open a charter school will need to wait for the commission to get running before they can apply. It's not known how long the application process will take -- since the rules have not been written -- but in New York state, for example, it takes about four months from the initial filing to final approval.

The new law would open as many as 40 charter schools over five years.

Under the initiative, any nonprofit organization could start a charter school here if their plan is approved by either commission or a local school board with authority from the state school board.

Chris Korsmo, executive director of the League of Education Voters, who worked on the Yes on 1240 campaign and whose group advocates for school reform, called the idea of opening the first charter school by fall 2013 a tall order and probably missing the point of the initiative. She said the goal is to ensure the new schools are of the highest quality and offer a great education to low-income and minority kids.

The league has heard from parents, teachers and school leaders who are interested in being involved in the new schools, as well as from charter school operators in other states, she said.

Robin Lake, director of the University of Washington's Center on Reinventing Public Education and a national expert on charter school research, said the key to success for charters in Washington is the 20 years of experience to draw on from the 41 states that already allow the independent schools.

The schools are most likely to succeed if the authorizers focus on good performance management, Lake said.

The commission and any school boards that are allowed to authorize charters must make sure the schools they approve have more than just a good idea. They need to have the ability to create great education programs, plan effectively, manage budgets, roll out well and meet goals, she said. "It takes commitment and on-the-ground work," she said.

Finding a balance between regulations and freedom for creativity helped lead charters to success in Denver, New York City and New Orleans, she said, blaming failures such as Arizona's on weak oversight and accountability.

The long-term goal is improving education for all kids and that can happen if the people who run traditional and charter public schools learn from each other, she said. "This is about more good schools. It's not about charter schools."

One significant hurdle is Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn, who says he may sue to stop the initiative from establishing a parallel department of education.

Initiative 1240 was unconstitutional because it would set up a separate school system with an unelected board, he said.

"It is clearly circumventing the constitution," he said; the state constitution establishes an elected superintendent of public instruction to oversee all public schools.

He has talked to the attorney general's office and state lawmakers and hopes the Legislature will find a way to fix the new law, he said, but is willing to bring a constitutional challenge all the way to the Washington Supreme Court, if necessary.