Constitutional Charters?

The state's top education official thinks Washington's school reform is unconstitutional (and a rip).

If charter schools have a roadblock to starting up locally, it's State Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn. After voters narrowly approved a charter-school initiative, Dorn announced that he was likely to sue over a provision in the measure that would establish a commission to oversee the new schools. His beef: The initiative puts the commission in the governor's office rather than his.

Is this merely a power grab by Dorn?

Speaking with Seattle Weekly, he insists it isn't. Nor, he says, is he just trying to stop charter schools, which he has supported in the past. Rather, Dorn says he's merely trying to uphold the state constitution, which puts his office in charge of public schools. What most people didn't realize when they voted for Initiative 1240, he maintains, is that the the charter-school commission would not only bypass his office, it would create a whole new and "separate school system" devoted only to this one type of public education. This would lead to "chaos," he continues, because "there would be confusion" over who was responsible for what.

Maybe or maybe not. The focus of the charter-school commission seems quite clear: charter schools.

But Dorn does raise some interesting side points. This new commission is estimated to cost $3 million over the next five years in staffing and related costs—to oversee just eight new schools a year (at most). In contrast, Dorn's office spends roughly $8 million annually to oversee the "core functions" (not including specialized services) of approximately 2,200 schools. So there's a potential waste of taxpayer money at issue, as 1240 opponents said all along.

Secondly, Dorn points out that his is an elected office, and local school-board members are also elected. The nine members of the new charter-school commission, however, are to be appointed: three by the governor, three by the president of the state Senate, and three by the speaker of the state House of Representatives.

So you could argue that the charter-school system will be less democratic, although there is a way of getting around this. The initiative empowers local school boards, as well as the commission, to authorize and monitor charter schools. The Washington State School Directors' Association is in fact taking the "position that charter schools should only be authorized under locally elected school boards," according to a release sent by the association.

Dorn says he's not likely to file suit until after the election results are certified on December 6. He also has a meeting with the state attorney general's office next week to talk over legalities.

If he does file suit—and win—he envisions a couple of outcomes. The commission could simply move into his office. Or the court might just strike down the entire law.

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