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Next Up for Washington State Chief Randy Dorn: Another Lawsuit?

Fresh off a primary election in August that leaves him unopposed on the Nov. 6 ballot, Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn is contemplating what any reinvigorated office-holder dearly desires: a lawsuit to challenge the power of the governor's office.

Here's the scene: Dorn's lawsuit would challenge the structure of Initiative 1240, the ballot measure that would allow up to 40 charter schools to begin operating in Washington state, if voters approve it. A new statewide charter authorizing commission would be created through the initiative, with nine members. Three would be appointed by the governor, three by the president of the state Senate, and three by the Speaker of the House. In an attempt to blunt the politicization of the commission, the initiative states that no more than five members of any one political party could sit on it, and they must represent geographical diversity. In addition, one commission member must be the parent of a Washington public school student.

What's Dorn's problem with that? He believes that the commission, as structured, violates the state constitution, because any such official government commission dealing with education should be in his portfolio, given that he is responsible for administering K-12 public schools. He said he tried to convince state lawmakers who worked on the charter initiative that it would be a mistake to bring the commission under the control of whoever wins the gubernatorial election, Democrat Jay Inslee or Republican Rob McKenna, as well as other state politicians, but to no avail.

"The bill should have been under this office," he told me in an interview at his Olympia office, as part of my trip to the state to report on the gubernatorial race and the charter initiative.

The issue of governors who attempt to consolidate more educational authority, and possibly strip it from state superintendent, is an ongoing one. Washington's neighbor to the south, Oregon, has undergone a dramatic change in education governance. Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat, is officially the superintendent of public instruction in the state, and he appoints a deputy superintendent to oversee the state department (the elected state superintendent's position no longer exists). But Oregon also has a chief education officer, Rudy Crew, who was appointed by Kitzhaber and oversees the development and general course of education policy in the state.

Meanwhile, the Washington state Supreme Court has dealt with a lawsuit dealing with education. Last January, the court ruled in McCleary v. Washington that the state had violated the state's constitution by not adequately funding basic education, and that too much of the tax burden for schools had been left to local communities. So education could be at the center of a major constitutional dispute in Washington twice in one year. (Charter advocates, by the way, including the Seattle-based League of Education Voters and the Washington chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, say they are supportive of boosting education funding as a big part of improving public schools.)

Aside from the spat over jurisdiction, Dorn said that if Initiative 1240 is approved by voters, he will encourage school districts to be pro-active with charters schools.

"I would encourage some of the [urban districts] ... that they should look at a charter school and be a sponsor and it can be a part [of] their board, instead of having an outside entity," he said, referring to established charter management organizations from outside the state.

By the way, the Yes on 1240 campaign released a new TV ad on Oct. 12 touting the benefits of charter schools, You can view the ad here. As I mentioned in a previous post on campaign finance related to the charter initiative, the pro-charter campaign has received a new infusion of cash, so the timing of this ad is not surprising.

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