Initiative 1240's rules for conversion charters has some clarity, some flexibility, and some elements that make no sense at all. To follow along you'll want quick access to the text of the initiative.
A few things are clear:
- The District retains ownership of the building - the charter school can't sell it, they are only leasing it.
- Per Section 223(5) The District retains the "major repairs and safety upgrades that may be required for the continued use of the facility as a public school" but the charter is responsible for "routine maintenance of the facility including, but not limited to, cleaning, painting, gardening, and landscaping."
- Conversion charters count towards the maximum of 40 charter schools authorized by the initiative. Section 101(1)n(i) says that the law will "Allow a maximum of up to forty public charter schools to be established". While there is a clear distinction made between conversion charter schools and new charter schools in Section 201(8) and 201(9), Section 201(5) clearly defines "Charter school" or "public charter school" to mean both new charter schools and conversion charter schools and Section 215(1) is where we find the cap of forty schools: "(1) A maximum of forty public charter schools may be established under this chapter, over a five-year period."
- While over-subscribed charter schools must use a lottery to determine who gets in, they must enroll siblings of current students first, before the lottery per Section 205(4). JSIS, I'm looking at you.
Some things are flexible:
- While Section 222(6) says that districts must allocate levy moneys to a conversion charter school, there's no rule about HOW they must make that allocation. Must they allocate an even share on a per building basis? On a per student basis? Using the same criteria they would use for any other building? Can they fulfill the law by allocating one dollar of the levy money to the conversion charter school? The law appears flexible.
- Going forward, Section 222(8) says that Districts must include charters within their borders on future levies "in the same manner as other public schools in the district." In Seattle that's a completely political process which would allow the District to shut the charters out.
- While a conversion charter must offer a seat to every student who is already in the school per Section 205(3) and wants to stay, the conversion charter is otherwise free to set their capacity. So an elementary school that now has three classes per grade must continue to enroll any student who wants to stay, but can limit the next year's kindergarten to two classes. And they don't have to keep the same number of students in the other grades. So if a lot of the rising third graders leave, the charter is free to reduce the enrollment by the number who leave.
- The law, in Section 205(5) allows charter schools to set their capacity annually. They can change it from year to year. Their authorizer consults, but can't veto the school's decision. So any charter school, including conversion charters, can set their enrollment capacity however they like (with the one exception that a conversion charter must offer a seat to every current student).
- Conversion charters still need to go through the application process, the petition is an additional requirement for conversions, but Section 214 says what the the charter school application needs to include (at a minimum) but it doesn't set any benchmarks. So authorizers are free to approve or reject applications however they like. The requirements that the Charter School Commission make transparent and merit-based decisions are unenforcable.
Some things are unintelligible:
- Per Section 223(5) conversion charters get use of the building rent-free "as part of the consideration for providing educational services under the charter contract". This is not right. The state cannot pay the charter school out of the school district's budget. This cannot possibly stand up to a Court challenge. Also, the law says "may" but it doesn't say who gets the option - the charter, the district, or the state. If it's the district, then the answer is NO.
- The whole "at or below fair market value" part, in Section 223(2), is difficult to parse. The charter school only gets "a right of first refusal" which doesn't mean that they don't have to be the high bidder. Also, the section refers to a couple of state laws, RCW 28A.335.040 and 28A.335.120, which make clear the rules for districts selling and leasing surplus school property. So, while this section sounds like a giveaway, it doesn't actually give the charter schools any advantage other than a tiebreaker.
- While charters must allow any student who applies to enroll without any entrance criteria, Section 205(6) says that this rule does not preclude the "formation of a charter school whose mission is to offer a specialized learning environment and services for particular groups of students". So you can form a charter and say that it is specifically designed to meet the needs of gifted students, but you can't bar non-gifted students from enrolling. You can, of course, serve them very, very badly so that they leave. This is how schools can technically remain open to all students and, at the same time, work to serve only a narrow range of students. This is how bilingual students and students with IEPs can be driven out of a charter. It may also be the means used to create a gifted student charter.
- While there is no provision anywhere in the initiative for the removal of a member of the Charter School Commission, they are subject to the laws that govern other state commissions and they are also subject to the laws that govern school boards. Either of these could be a tool that members of the public could use to remove a commissioner, but there's just no telling.
- It is unclear what happens to approved applications that are not among the first eight of each year to be approved. Are they carried forward to next year? Do they have to repeat the entire process? The initiative is silent on the question.