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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Conversion Charter Ambiguities


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:
  1. The District retains ownership of the building - the charter school can't sell it, they are only leasing it.
  2. 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."
  3. 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."
  4. 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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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).
  5. 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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

11 comments:

Unknown said...

Charlie, that's a lot of perusing but I think you missed a few things.

The Washington State School Administrators believe that the conversion charters DON'T count in the 40 and I think they may be right. There is wording elsewhere that makes it unclear.

With conversion schools, the district also gets no rent even as each charter is its own district. It's like saying we would allow Bellevue one of our buildings (they are public schools, right?) but not charge them.

Good point on the levies but I suspect that, at least for the operations levy, charters would get their fair share as every school in SPS gets some portion of operations. But I suspect charters would get capital funds as well.

One thing that many, many people have missed.

The Charter Commission is exempt from two sections - 209 and 213 and those are the ones that determine how they will select charters. The initiative is strangely silent on this issue so ONLY school boards have to follow that process, not the Charter Commission.

Why would that be written in such a manner and why would we find out AFTER the election how the Charter Commission will operate?

As for the sell-off of property, Charlie, I think the issue is that the charter could be the ONLY bidder and thus get the property for LESS than it is worth. There should never be the option that we sell public property for less than it is worth.

Also, to note:

- members of the Commission don't have to have an education background and not a single seat is set aside for anyone who does

- gifted students are included in the "at-risk" group (but oddly, homeless students, who are a federally protected group of students, are not mentioned anywhere in 1240 - you can't get more at-risk than being homeless)

- there is no mention of charter board members having to have background checks which would be good as adults working in a building (although they are not technically employees)

Charlie Mas said...

The whole rent-free thing strikes me as wrong.

The law says that the free rent is part of the charter's "consideration". This is consideration as in payment on a contract. The School District doesn't owe the charter any money; the state does. I don't think the state can pay the charter with the school district's property.

Charlie Mas said...

I wonder what would happen if The Center School became a conversion charter.

The Center School is in spaced leased by the District from the City.

Would the city be required to waive the lease payments? Would the District be required to continue to make the lease payments?

The District should seriously consider leasing all of their property to the city for a dollar and then leasing back all of the schools they are using for a dollar. That way any conversion charters would owe market rents to the City.

mirmac1 said...

At least Goldy gets it!

Don't Be Charter Fooled

I-1240's billionaire backers are selling you a cheap knockoff of real education reform. Don't buy it.

John Marshal said...

I have concerns about the Charter proposal. I cannot reconcile the bill with the Washington State Constitution Our constitution requires the legislature provide a "general and uniform system of public schools." Wash. Const. Art. IX, Section 2.

The Charter Bill, in its first sections, states that part of its goal is to "...give parents more options to find the best environment for their children."

One does not usually find options when there is a "uniform system."

But the Bill goes on to state that its purpose is to "free teachers and principals form burdensome regulations that limit other public schools."

Presumably these "burdensome regulations" were put in place by the legislature (or our administrative agencies) when they were designing the "uniform system"

Creating a system that burdens some schools with regulations while freeing others surely is not "uniform."

Subparagraph (M) defines these "public charter schools" as "common schools" which are part of the "general and uniform system of public schools." But how can that be?

Simply because they declare them to be "general and uniform" that does not make them so.

Years ago, a school district challenged a law that allocated a portion of the common school funds to a "model training department" of a state normal school. Under the law, certain children of the district would attend the training department instead of their local common school. The State argued that the training department was a "common school" entitled to school funds. The Court rejected the argument.

The case may have involved only some students being sent to the training schools (I don't think they were open to all students). However, an important consideration for the Court was that the school was not under the control of the voters but was answered to an appointed board of trustees, not the elected district directors.

I've just spent a few minutes looking at these issues. I've only read the first two pages of the bill. But I think that, even if it should pass, there will be a legal challenge to its implementation.

I see the comments about "free rent" and other such nonsense. While that might be in the Bill or or the Bill might be read that way, it is absurd to think that that is going to happen.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to the voters defeating the initiative. And, if it passes, the lawyers picking it apart.




suep. said...

Meanwhile over at the Seattle-McKenna Times, the 'copy editors' (cough cough, publishers) continue to print/allow errors in the headlines of stories that contain negative viewpoints on I-1240/charters.

Check this out: The headline in today's Letters section about the charter school initiative(1240) erroneously lists the number for the legalizing marijuana initiative (502).

See: "Initiative 502: Charter schools in Washington state"

Hard to believe this is accidental. There are layers of editors and copy editors and the writers themselves who all could have and should have caught and corrected this.

Also, this is particularly suspicious because the Times did something similar about a week ago when it ran a "typo" in the headline of one of the only anti-charter op-eds it has published (by Mari Taylor), calling them "charger" schools.

Even when readers called it out on the mistake, the Times only corrected the main headline, not the jump head which repeated the "typo" on the Comments page.

As I said in the Comments sections, that was very likely a tactic to prevent readers from being able to successfully Google and find that anti-charter op-ed and related comments on its site.

This makes it all the more obvious that the Times publishers are rabidly pro-charter and have abrogated their duties to providing real journalism.

Pathetic really, and further cements the Times' reputation and primary value as hamster-cage liner.

Here's today's "mistake":


November 1, 2012 at 6:00 AM

Initiative 502: Charter schools in Washington state

Posted by Letters coordinator

No public-school funds for private-sector profits

Almost 40 years ago in 1974, I served as the first chair of the Group for Alternative Elementary School No. 2 because of my beliefthat U.S. public-school education builds better citizens. Our group successfully petitioned the Seattle School Board to approve our vision of a “school within a school.” AE II minimized costs by limiting the cost per pupil to no more than the district’s average and took full advantage of the school district’s existing professional administrative resources.

Now fully integrated into the Seattle Public Schools as Thornton Creek School, AE II's original philosophy and approach to student learning still guide its operation. Also, this “charter school” is fully accountable to the duly elected Seattle School Board.

My wife and I are most proud of both of our now adult sons who benefited immensely from attending AE II. This is why I’m opposed to siphoning off limited public-school funds for private-sector profits to operate charter schools and voted no on Initiative 1240.

— Jeff Finn, Bellevue


(continued on next post)

suep. said...

(continued)

No money for new charter schools

I would like to respond to the TV ads and news articles encouraging voters to pass Initiative 1240, which allows the state to set up charter schools. I have taught for 10 years in Seattle Public Schools and would like to share the teacher’s concern of this issue.

Due to the lack of funding, schools have cut drug and student counselors, computer and life-skill classes and support personnel such as truancy and security officials and teachers’ aids. There is no money for new textbooks, causing some teachers to us other material, which must be copied so students in all classes can complete assignments with over 30 students in each class and five classes a day.

Many teachers work 10 to 12 hours a day to prepare for class and correct and record class work. Teachers spend their own money on classroom supplies and many take other jobs because their salaries do not meet their living expenses (we are underpaid).

I am sure Seattle is not the only district going through cuts like this. If Washington state cannot pay for the schools they already have, how will they pay for new charter schools.

— Patricia Mowbray, Lynnwood

Anonymous said...

Is it just me, or does everyone smell a boat-load of billable hours for attorneys if this charter bill passes? Wow, it is going to be clogging the courts for years, in several aspects of it's vagueness. There is a lot of money at stake, so of course it will get litigated, and that all takes time and dollars, time and dollars that would better be spent actually on education. If nothing else, can't Mr. Gates and Mr. Bezos and the other billionaires realize that this is not the efficient way to help children? Surely they must abhor wasteful, fruitless, and endless litigation too?

I am not beating up on trail lawyers, definitely there is a time and a place for fighting a good fight by lawyering up, but this clearly isn't one of them.

-signed, that sinking feeling

Melissa Westbrook said...

John Marshall, you bring up what I think is somewhat of a delicate subject - uniform schools under our Constitution.

Bluntly speaking, the state's duty is to provide a decent education to the state's children. That they choose to do it in a "uniform" manner could speak to many things - economies of scale, easy of delivery, etc.

What it does not say is that parents "deserve" options. That is not the state's duty.

That the state via OSPI needs to keep up with the awareness that not all kids learn the same and, by providing options, might allow more students to do better is important.

But folks, people select schools not just for academics. No matter what the Yes people want to say, people have many reasons for picking a school and while academic outcomes are a likely number one, it isn't the ONLY one.

Sinking, my impression is that the people who crafted 1240 (and there were many cooks in the kitchen and some of them from out-of-state) and they just got greedy in terms of how much they could stuff into the bill.

Honestly, I was quite shocked when I read it because it had even MORE items than the legislation. I had every kind of benne for facilities (a huge issue for charters) and, of course, the harshest conversion charter section in the country.

I wonder if they thought the union would be so exhausted that they couldn't fight back. I think they are wrong.

Someone said, oh, no one will want to fight back against such deep pockets. Only thing? If it passes, whoever files suit will be fighting the State, not Bill Gates.

Anonymous said...

suep,

I noticed the same 'mistake,' wrote a note to the op-ed publishers and asked if it was intentional. I smelled the same rat you did.

Not only did they not respond, they've pulled the letters/heading from the site.

Anastasia

mirmac1 said...

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