Charter school initiative: How easy would it be to 'flip' a school?

Oct 26, 2012

One item on the November ballot might look familiar to Washington voters, an initiative to allow charter schools. The deja vu could be because charter school measures have already gone before voters three times, most recently in 2004. 

But there’s a key difference this time that could have some far-reaching effects, and that’s what parent Steve Nesich wanted to talk about when he testified before the Seattle School Board about Initiative 1240.

“I’m opposing 1240 for many reasons. But the main one is because of its trigger provision,” Nesich told board members.

He was talking about a part of the initiative that would let some neighborhood schools convert into charter schools.

“This trigger would permit just 51 percent of any school’s parents, or just 51 percent of any school’s teachers, to immediately convert it into a charter. And there is no process specified for appeal or means of reversal,” he said.

So does that really reflect what would happen if voters approve I-1240? Opponents like Melissa Westbrook, a Seattle blogger and chair of the No on 1240 campaign, say it’s a definite possibility.

Well, I personally call the conversion charter the poison pill of this initiative,” Westbrook said. “This would be the harshest conversion charter in the whole country … in other states, it normally applies to a failing school. In this case, it’s any existing school, whether it’s failing or not.”

Washington’s measure is also unusual in that it lets either parents or teachers approve the conversion, and they’d get to keep the school district’s building, rent-free, while the district would still be on the hook for major repairs.

'Rigorous application' still required

But Shannon Campion, a spokeswoman for the initiative, said there are plenty of safeguards. 

“This notion that a group of parents or teachers come together and then you automatically open a charter school is false. It’s just completely false. They have to put forward a quality application that’s just as good as anybody else’s. And part of that application process is demonstrating public support for the conversion,” Campion said.

So it would be impossible, she said, to ram through a charter conversion without much wider backing. And any group applying to convert a traditional school would have to have plans for finances, transportation, academics, just like a non-profit who wanted to start a charter school from scratch.

“There’s also a public forum that’s a required part of the application process where then the public, parents, anybody else can voice their opinions,” Campion said.

In other words, it’s not the case that opponents would have no chance to argue against a conversion, though it’s not clear exactly how much input they would have or how widely the charter backers would have to publicize their efforts.

Lessons from Cali

While Washington’s law would have some unique qualities, other states do have experience with conversion charters. Nationwide, about nine percent of charter schools began as conversions, according to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. About a third of those are in California where, in addition to conversion provisions in the charter school law, lawmakers also passed another, separate parent trigger law. That law lets a majority of parents take over a failing school and, if they want, convert it to a charter.

“It has been a bit of a rocky road. And this parent trigger law especially has been really contentious,” said Vanessa Romo, education reporter for KPCC in Los Angeles (and former KPLU staffer).

Romo said in California, a private group called Parent Revolution has been leading the charge to take over schools. They’ve been active all over the state.

“They have a lot of money behind them, and they target schools that they see are failing where they feel that they can get a groundswell of parents who would be in favor of this petition. And, you know, this is all seen as parent empowerment,” she said.

So would a group like that make waves in Washington the way it has in California? There are key differences between the trigger law and I-1240, including all the additional charter application requirements Washington parents would have. But California’s case could provide a glimpse at future battle lines.

Leverage over districts?

And then there’s one other twist, as charter opponent Melissa Westbrook explained.

“It’s possible that you could have a group of teachers or a group of parents who are unhappy with some situation at the school saying, if you don’t give us what we want, district, we’re going to sign a petition and flip this school,” Westbrook said.

In other words, the conversion clause could give parents or teachers leverage. That would mean even groups that don’t like charter schools, like, say, teachers unions, could have a major new bargaining chip.