The Law as it Presently Exists
The legislature has provided for the education of resident children through creation of a public school system. Public schools are operated by local school districts under the overall supervision of the state superintendent of public instruction. Children between the ages of eight and eighteen must attend public school, subject to certain exceptions including enrolling in private school or receiving homeschool instruction.
School districts are local government bodies responsible for operating the “common schools” (kindergarten through twelfth grade) in their boundaries. A board of directors elected by the people of the district governs each school district. Each board appoints a superintendent of schools and employs teachers, administrators, and other staff as needed. School district boards must comply with certain statewide standards, but each board is responsible for selecting the number, size, and location of school buildings, employing staff, and choosing curriculum and textbooks for that district.
Each school district must allow all children residing within its geographic boundaries to enroll in its schools. Each school district has discretion to determine where an enrolled student attends school. Most districts assign students to schools on a geographic basis but may also offer students some choice of schools within a district. Many districts offer special programs that are available to students on a non-geographical basis. If agreed to by both districts, a student may attend school in another district.
Currently, public schools are established by local school district boards and cannot be created or operated by any other entity. They are primarily funded by the state. The legislature appropriates funds to the superintendent of public instruction for distribution to school districts. District allotments consider a number of factors but are primarily based on the number of students enrolled in the district. In addition to their state funding, districts may levy voter-approved special property taxes and seek funding from the federal government and/or private sources for district educational programs.
State laws impose various requirements for education programs offered by school districts. Examples of state requirements include provisions relating to student/teacher ratios, alternative education programs, special education, student transportation, bilingual instruction, highly capable students, visual and auditory screening of students, immunization, early childhood programs, school attendance, compulsory course work, food services for students, and management of school district property.
The state board of education is a state agency made up of sixteen members, including the superintendent of public instruction, members appointed by the governor, and members elected by local school boards. The board of education develops educational policy and provides strategic oversight of the public school system.
The Education Employment Relations Act (Chapter 41.59 RCW) governs school district employment relations issues. This statute provides for collective bargaining as to wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment, and sets requirements and limitations on the collective bargaining process. Collective bargaining matters are within the jurisdiction of the public employment relations commission, a state agency.
The Effect of the Proposed Measure, if Approved
This measure would allow the authorization of a limited number of charter schools within the state’s public school system. The measure uses the terms “charter school” and “public charter school” interchangeably, and defines the term as a public school governed by a charter school board and operated according to the terms of a charter contract, which is entered into pursuant to the terms of the measure. The measure would limit the number of charter schools to forty over a five year period, with no more than eight charter schools established per year.
A public charter school would include one or more of grades kindergarten through twelfth. Each charter school would be operated by a nonprofit corporation meeting the requirements of public benefit nonprofit corporations (a nonprofit corporation that has been designated as a tax-exempt charity under the federal internal revenue code). The nonprofit corporation could not be a sectarian or religious organization. Charter schools would be open to all students, and could only limit admission based on age group, grade level, or capacity of the school. Charter schools would be subject to supervision by the superintendent of public instruction and the state board of education.
Public charter schools would be created either as “new” charter schools (public schools that did not previously exist) or “conversion” charter schools (existing public schools converted into charter schools). Conversion charter schools must enroll all students already attending the school who wish to remain enrolled. If new charter schools have insufficient capacity to enroll all students who apply, admission would be determined by lottery, with preference given to siblings of already enrolled students.
The measure establishes two different ways that public charter schools could be authorized. First, the measure would create a new state agency, the Washington charter school commission. The commission could authorize charter schools anywhere in the state and enter into charter contracts with such schools. The commission would administer the charter schools it authorizes by managing, supervising, and enforcing the schools’ charter contracts. The commission would consist of nine members. The governor, the president of the state senate, and the speaker of the house of representatives would each appoint three members, and no more than five members could be of the same political party. The members would be required to have experience and expertise in public and nonprofit governance, public school education, and management and finance; and a demonstrated commitment to charter schools.
Second, the measure would allow local school district boards to authorize public charter schools within their school district boundaries. To authorize charter schools, a school district board would first have to apply to the state board of education to be approved as an authorizer of charter schools. The measure sets minimum requirements for the application. An approved school district board would be required to execute a six-year contract with the board of education, agreeing to certain responsibilities as an authorizer. Approved school district boards could then authorize and enter into charter contracts with charter schools, and would be responsible for managing, supervising, and enforcing those charter contracts. The state board of education would oversee approved school district boards and under certain circumstances could revoke its approval of the school district board as an authorizer of charter schools.
Under the measure, nonprofit corporations seeking to operate a public charter school would apply to the charter school commission or to an approved school district board. The measure sets minimum requirements for applications to operate charter schools. Applicants could apply to only one authorizer at a time, but could re-apply or apply to a different authorizer if rejected. The measure provides that preference would be given to approving applications for charter schools designed to enroll at-risk students.
A public charter school’s basic structure and operations would be set forth in its charter contract. The charter contract would be a renewable, five-year contract between the authorizer (the state charter school commission or an approved local school board) and the charter school board. The charter school board would be appointed or selected according to the approved terms of the charter school application submitted by the nonprofit corporation. Subject to the terms of the charter contract, the charter school board could hire and discharge employees and enter into contracts to carry out the school’s functions, including purchase or rental of real property, equipment, goods, supplies, and services. Contracts for management of the charter school could only be with nonprofit corporations. The charter school board could also borrow money and issue debt, but could not use public funds allocated to the school as collateral. The state, the charter school commission, and the local school district would not be held responsible for the debt.
The measure would set minimum requirements for what must be addressed in public charter school contracts, including academic and operational performance expectations and measures by which the performance will be judged. Charter contracts may be revoked or not renewed under certain circumstances, including failing to meet performance expectations.
Public charter schools would receive allocation of state funding based on their student enrollments, including both basic education funding and other categories of state funding for public schools. A portion of this allocation would be used to fund administrative oversight by the authorizer of the charter school (the charter school commission or the local school district board). Charter schools authorized by local school boards and conversion charter schools would also be entitled to per-pupil allocations of local levy proceeds, but new charter schools authorized by the charter school commission could receive funds only from levies submitted to voters after the school’s start-up date. A charter school would not be able to charge tuition, levy taxes, or issue tax-backed bonds. A charter school could accept and administer grants and donations from governmental and private entities, and would be eligible to apply for state grants on the same basis as a school district.
Public charter schools would be exempt from most state statutes and rules applicable to school districts, except statutes and rules made applicable through the school’s charter. However, charter schools would be required to comply with certain laws such as local, state, and federal laws regarding health and safety, parents’ rights, civil rights, and nondiscrimination. Charter schools would be required to employ certificated instructional staff (with certain exceptions also applicable to other public schools), would be required to provide basic education as defined by statute, would be subject to performance audits, and would be subject to open public meetings and open public records laws. Charter schools would be prohibited from engaging in sectarian practices.
Public charter schools and their employees would participate in state retirement programs for teachers, school employees, and public employee retirement systems, unless including them would jeopardize the status of the retirement systems as governmental plans for purposes of the internal revenue code and related federal laws. Charter school employees would also be eligible to participate in state employee health benefit programs.
Public charter schools would generally be subject to the same collective bargaining requirements as other public schools, but the bargaining unit for collective bargaining would be limited to employees of the charter school rather than including employees from several schools or a school district.