The Charter-School Poison Pill

How a few parents could take over your kid's school.

If the charter-school initiative, I-1240, passes—which is all but a sure thing now, though opponents hadn't conceded by press time—schools activist and blogger Melissa Westbrook worries about what she calls the measure's "poison pill." That's the clause that allows for an existing public school to convert to a charter.

What? You don't know anything about that clause? Don't worry, it's a safe bet that you're not alone. There were so many big races and hot-button initiatives on the ballot that the details of 1240 got lost in the shuffle.

While not as voluminous as the marijuana-legalization Initiative 502, the text of the charter-school measure still runs to 39 pages. The details are so complex that even Seattle Public Schools has not yet figured out what it all means, according to spokesperson Teresa Wippel.

As a primer, the initiative would create a maximum of 40 charter schools over five years, with no more than eight such schools per year. Only non-religious nonprofits could run them, and they would have to submit an application for approval to either a local school board or a new, nine-member charter-school commission. The local board or the commission would then be responsible for monitoring the schools they approve.

All that gets especially tricky when it comes to the potential conversion of an existing school. The initiative says that an entity that wants to turn a regular public school into a charter must "demonstrate support for the proposed conversion by a petition signed by a majority of teachers assigned to the school or a petition signed by a majority of parents."

"So imagine," Westbrook says, "18 teachers in an elementary school and just 10 sign a petition." Whether that school is failing or not, she says, the school will then go an entirely different route, one that she says will "take a building offline" and wreak havoc on a district's assignment and transportation system.

Marianne Bichsel, spokesperson for the "no" campaign, People for Our Public Schools, adds that California has seen a number of lawsuits over conversion attempts. "Teachers might want to convert, but parents don't," she says, or vice versa.

Initiative 1240 supporter Lisa Macfarlane says there's a lot of confusion on this issue due to the movie Won't Back Down, in which Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal play two parents who stage a takeover of a low-performing school. Macfarlane says that wouldn't happen here because, unlike in California, parents (or teachers) can't force a school to convert. A school board or the charter-school commission would have to sign off on such a plan, and only after a public hearing. "It all happens in the light of day," she says. Macfarlane also envisions that a school board itself might initiate a conversion in order to try something new with a perpetually troubled school.

But it certainly seems within the realm of possibility that a narrow majority of parents or teachers might initiate a charter conversion plan and get it approved. And then what happens to the, say, 49 percent of parents who don't want to send their children to a charter? Where will their kids go? To neighboring schools that are already maxed out?

What about future years? Where will upcoming kindergarteners in the charter school's neighborhood be assigned, given that the initiative says that students can't be assigned to a charter—they must apply?

Macfarlane says she has a hard time getting her "head around" all the hypotheticals. We understand. So do we. That's why we're more than a little queasy that 1240 likely will win without a general understanding of all the ramifications.

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