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Originally published Thursday, March 29, 2012 at 3:38 PM

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Seattle Public Schools' innovation plan requires tweaking, scrutiny

The 80-percent threshold to launch innovation in Seattle Public Schools offers an impossibly high bar for consensus. A simple majority is democratic. The district's proposed super-super majority is autocratic.

Seattle Times Editorial

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THE Seattle Public Schools' pursuit of innovation is a work in progress that would benefit from wider, sharper scrutiny.

The Creative Approach Schools plan agreed to by the teachers union and the School Board takes a page from charter schools in offering flexibility and freedom from district and union rules. The idea that schools could focus on science or the arts and extend school time, customize curriculum and reject low-performing teachers transferring from other schools is as innovative as it is necessary.

But requiring 80 percent of teachers to sign on before a school could innovate is an impossibly high threshold. It is difficult to get 80 percent of any group to agree, a key reason why education levies require only a simple majority. Colorado, similar to Washington in student-body size and makeup, embraced innovation schools years ago and requires only a 60 percent buy-in from teachers.

School turnarounds sometimes require a change in leadership and teachers. It is doubtful that existing teachers would vote for a plan that threatened their jobs.

The board's oversight role needs to be clarified. Oversight from the superintendent, along with the board's authority to single out a school for scrutiny — including auditing — may not offer enough safeguards. Particularly when the rules are being relaxed and school leaders will have wide latitude in creating education plans and shifting public dollars toward them.

The public must be able to hold someone accountable, chiefly those they elect.

The teachers union, a strong opponent of charters, is enthusiastic in its support of Seattle's plan. If that smells self-serving, union Vice President Jonathan Knapp clears up the mystery, telling Times education reporter Brian M. Rosenthal: "We wanted to be able to say that there's no reason to have charters in Seattle."

School Board President Michael DeBell smartly distances the board from political motives: "This is about an opportunity to turn around low-performing schools without having to wait for some sort of state mechanism or political initiative from outside of the district."

The framework for Creative Approach Schools needs improvement before it can proceed from being cast as a substitute for charters to a plan promising real change in the classroom.

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