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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Charter schools groups say rule changes unexpected

Travis Franklin, director of the Spokane International Academy, patches a wall Thursday in the former St. Patrick’s School classroom where a chalkboard used to hang. Charter school officials like Franklin are alarmed about changes to regulations made by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. OSPI is trying to force charters into the same mold as public schools; that’s not what voters wanted, they say. (Colin Mulvany)

As Travis Franklin prepares to open a new charter school in Northeast Spokane, he worries the state is changing the ground rules by rushing through new regulations on staffing and pay that make charters too much like standard public schools.

“The whole point of passing the initiative and having charter schools was doing something different,” said Franklin, head of school for the Spokane International Academy, scheduled to open this fall in the old St. Patrick’s School.

Franklin said he learned just last week of rule changes proposed by the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction that could be approved as soon as today.

Could have been, but won’t be, Superintendent Randy Dorn said Thursday. That tentative date was initially set in April for a decision on the rules – which Dorn insisted merely require the same financial accountability for charter schools as other public schools. Questions about the rules will result in the agency extending the comment period into the summer for possible changes. The earliest they would be in place is this fall.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” said Dorn, who added the rules are so routine they were drafted by staff and he didn’t even see them until Wednesday. “We’re just saying ‘Report correctly.’ ”

Liv Finne, director of the Education Center of the conservative Washington Policy Center, labeled the proposed changes a “regulatory power grab” by Dorn that will hurt charter schools. In her blog this week, Finne noted that Dorn opposed Initiative 1240, which approved charter schools, and accused him of pushing for rules that would allow him to impose cuts and restrictions on the schools.

She accused Dorn of trying to sneak the rules through by scheduling a hearing the day after a holiday weekend and an approval three days later.

Dorn said those assertions are blown out of proportion.

The rules are designed to make sure charter schools meet the same financial reporting requirements as other public schools, he said. The initiative that allows charter schools sets them up as public schools, and they need to account for money they receive from the state just as other schools do.

Thomas Franta, chief executive officer of the Washington State Charter Schools Association, said he was “caught off-guard” by the language in two rules that would require charter schools to contract with Educational Service Districts and maintain certain staffing levels. Charter schools should have the flexibility to go beyond ESDs for services, and are required to hit standards for student outcomes, not standard staffing levels, he said.

But he didn’t view the rule changes as a “power grab.”

“The conversations we’ve had over the last six to 12 months have been largely collaborative,” Franta said, and OSPI staff has been receptive to the association’s suggestions for changes.

Jack Archer, director of Basic Education Oversight for the State Board of Education, said the rules do seem to be drafted to emphasize that the superintendent’s authority over charter schools is the same as over public schools. But they don’t mention that elsewhere in the law there are exemptions to those requirements “for the purpose of allowing flexibility to innovate in areas such as scheduling, personnel, funding and education program in order to improve student outcomes and academic achievement,” Archer told OSPI staff at a hearing on the proposed rules Tuesday. (Editor’s note: Archer’s position with the board was listed incorrectly in an earlier version of this story.)

There are legal questions about the scope of a superintendent’s authority over charter schools, he said Thursday.

Archer, too, was critical of the lack of notice for the rule changes. Although they were posted on the OSPI website on April 22, he didn’t learn of them until last week.

Dorn said the charter school rule changes are “a minor, technical thing,” filed like all rule changes. “If people didn’t have enough time to comment, we will extend it,” he said.

There’s no deadline at this point for when the new rules would be final and go into effect.