Mid-Columbia education officials say many questions unanswered about charter schools

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldDecember 2, 2012 

School districts will need to share local levy money with any charter school that opens in their service area, but it's not clear how much.

Charter school proponents have said charter schools will have fewer regulations, although it's unknown which regulations they'll be exempt from.

Charter schools won't be limited to hiring certified teaching staff and could employ non-certified teachers with "an unusual competence" in a subject.

"Anyone could say they're of unusual competence," Pasco School Board chairwoman Sherry Lancon said during a recent meeting. "Who decides competence?"

Last month, Washington voters narrowly approved an initiative to allow 40 charter schools to open in the state over five years.

And Mid-Columbia school boards and education officials have raised questions about the initiative's vague aspects, and there are indications the initiative could be challenged on its constitutionality. But officials said charter schools in Washington seem inevitable, and there's a need to prepare for their anticipated arrival.

"It will come in one form or another," said Bruce Hawkins, superintendent for Educational Service District 123 in Pasco, one of the state's nine regional offices that serves as a resource for 23 school districts in southeastern Washington.

Initiative 1240 will allow the public charter schools to operate independently of local school districts yet receive state funding. The approval comes after Washington voters three times before rejected charter schools -- in 1996, 2000 and 2004.

The initiative was passing by more than 41,000 votes Friday, according to a tally on the state Secretary of State's website. It received narrow approval in Benton and Franklin counties and was narrowly rejected in Walla Walla County. The election officially will be certified Thursday.

Only eight new charter schools will be allowed to be created each year under the initiative, and school district officials in the Mid-Columbia said they hadn't heard of any efforts to start a school in the region. The process to get a charter school approved has not been established and isn't expected to be for months.

However, board members in the Prosser and Columbia school districts have held discussions about what the law could mean to their districts.

Columbia Superintendent Lou Gates said his board in Burbank is aware a charter school opening up in the district would siphon money from the district's three schools.

Columbia School Board members also discussed how the district could become a charter organization under the initiative, which allows current public schools to become charter schools if enough parents and teachers sign a petition and a thorough education plan is presented to state officials.

Gates said such an approach is attractive because of the ability to be exempt from some regulations, but the board determined the charter school path was a non-starter.

"Our board doesn't believe our patrons would be amenable to that," Gates said.

Sarah Thornton, a human resources officer with the Pasco School District, said it's uncertain how charter schools would be affected by federal laws because they will not be eligible for federal funding.

"Overall, there's a lack of clarity," she told the Pasco School Board at a recent meeting.

Some educators say the initiative may be unconstitutional because it would prevent the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction from overseeing charter schools.

Gates and Hawkins said a legal challenge to the initiative may be in the works. However, they aren't part of it.

The Seattle Times and other news organizations have reported state Superintendent Randy Dorn plans a legal challenge of the initiative.

Regardless, officials are preparing for charter schools. Hawkins said ESD 123, which supports public schools and some private schools with various programs and educator training opportunities, is required by its mission to support charter schools.

"Certainly we would be open to helping them," he said.

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