Washington School Districts And Charter Schools Can Be Partners, Not Enemies

School choice doesn't have to be mud-wrestling. Some stakeholders in Washington say it's time for a cease-fire in the charter school wars. Spokane shows how.

Spokane International Academy was one of two charter schools authorized by Spokane Public Schools, for the depth and detail of their applications. It uses the rigorous college-prep Cambridge Curriculum and is situated in Spokane's economically-challenged Hillyard neighborhood. Here, students visit the State Capitol in Olympia. Image: Spokane International Academy.

As the debate continues to rage over public charter schools in Washington, traditional public schools and many of their supporters have squared off in opposition to charters, which they see as draining attention and money away from them.

But Spokane Public Schools has from the start taken a unique path. They’ve worked alongside local charter schools by authorizing two. Some stakeholders now say such a collaborative approach may really be the most strategic over the long haul.

When Washington voters approved public charter schools in 2012, there were two ways for the schools to open. They could be authorized by the state charter school commission, or by the local school district. Local district authorization wasn’t in the cards in King and Pierce counties, where seven of the state’s current nine public charter schools are based but opposition to charters runs high among teachers, some parents and school board members.

One Out Of 295

Of the state’s 295 public school districts, just Spokane’s became a charter authorizer. It approved PRIDE Prep and Spokane International Academy.

But the district is not running any public charter schools currently. Last fall, the State Supreme Court ruled that Washington public charter schools were not “common schools,” run by elected school boards and accountable to voters, and thus not eligible for state General Fund monies like traditional public schools. When the court ruled the funding mechanism for charters was unconstitutional, it invalidated any agreement Spokane had.

The state superintendent provided a “stop-gap” fix for the rest of the school year. Spokane’s charters and others in the state were given a designation normally reserved for online schools, Alternative Learning Experiences (ALE). They became ALE programs under the Mary Walker School District in December. It’s a small district near Spokane. Two more were technically classified as homeschool centers to get around the court ruling.

On April 1, Washington Governor Jay Inslee let stand a public charter schools funding rescue bill approved by the legislature, swapping in lottery proceeds for General Fund dollars.

Days after the legislation cleared the Governor’s desk, charter school opponents led by the statewide teachers union, the Washington Education Association (WEA), announced they would file another lawsuit to block the schools, unless they are directly overseen by local school boards.The WEA and the Washington League of Women Voters were among groups advancing the first court challenge.

Spokane Will Re-enter Contracts With Two Charter Schools

Spokane School Board President Deana Brower indicated the district plans to enter into a contract with its former charter schools again. “I saw quality education happening,” when visiting one of the schools, she said.

Ann Murphy, president of the League of Women Voters of Washington, one of the groups that legally challenged the 2012 voter approval of charters, said Spokane’s district-authorized charter schools were “a different animal” but might still be seen as insufficiently accountable to the public, with unelected non-profit boards controlling their operations.

The state has some of the highest standards in the country for charter schools, according to the National Association for Charter School Authorizers, a charter school research and advocacy group. Charter authorizers are required to submit annual evaluations of their schools.

Collaboration Between Charters And Districts: A Win-Win, Actually

Executive Director Bree Dusseault said Green Dot Schools view themselves as serving the districts they’re located in, and would like to build a collaborative relationship with the Tacoma and Seattle schools. The company currently operates Green Dot Charter Middle School in Tacoma and plans to open a large one in Seattle next year. Working with the Mary Walker School District has meant they were able to share ideas and learn from each other, she said. “They have been really fantastic partners to work with,” Dusseault said.

Collaboration between school districts and charter schools is actually the way through the current controversy in Washington, writes Robin Lake in the Seattle Times.

The Director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, at University of Washington-Bothell, Robin Lake, states, “I have been studying charter schooling in America since the late 1990s. I have seen terrible charter schools. I have also seen excellent charter schools that set a new standard for innovation and quality.”

Lake adds:

“I have seen school districts and even teachers union leaders move from battling charter schools to partnering with them, and even running them. School districts and charter schools are working together in Denver, Indianapolis, Oakland, Houston, Chicago, Boston and at least 20 other cities, benefitting students and teachers alike.”

Brower said the Spokane Schools decided to become an authorizer because it aligned with their mentality of offering a variety of education options, like Montessori and an Institute of Science and Technology. “Charters fit well within that portfolio,” she said.

Education isn’t one-size-fits-all, Brower said, and the district wanted to have choices for students and families that might be searching for a niche. Pride Prep offers individualized learning with a technology component, she said, and Spokane International Academy has a focus on foreign language.

The district also wanted to ensure that the options available to its students met high standards.

More Say, More Oversight For District Authorizers

“I had let (the board) know if we don’t become an authorizer, the quality of charter schools, we really would have no say or oversight. And we really wanted to make sure that our students had access to quality programs,” said Spokane Superintendent Shelley Redinger.

Redigner had previously worked with charter schools in Oregon while superintendent of the Oregon Trail School District, and said it was a positive working relationship. Redigner said it was important to have the full support of the school board, which other districts might not.

Authorizer Work Complicated, Time-Intensive

But Brower and Redigner said the process of becoming a charter school authorizer was complicated and time-intensive. “I could see smaller districts that aren’t engaging in that type of work wouldn’t have the staff to fill out such an elaborate application and spend time on the process,” Brower said. Spokane Schools Chief Academic Officer Steven Gering said the application to become an authorizer was over a hundred pages long, and also involved a visit from the state school board.

Spokane International Academy board chair Cal Larson said the school had a 250-page agreement with the Spokane School District board of directors that they had to comply with. “Our funding did come through the district, so they had a direct hand in the management of SIA,” he said.

Spokane Schools Chief Academic Officer Steven Gering said Spokane’s school board took applications from prospective charter schools, and then entered into a three-year contract with the two they approved. They could choose not to renew, or to revoke the authorization if certain requirements aren’t met. He said SIA and PRIDE Prep were selected for the depth and detail of their applications.

Spokesperson Maggie Meyers of the Washington State Charter School Association said they haven’t yet seen interest from other school districts in becoming authorizers, and attributed it to both political leanings and the “heavy lift” that the application process requires of districts.

Layers Of Accountability

Dusseault said charter schools have another layer of accountability in addition to the performance indicators like state tests that every school has. The state commission does annual evaluations on how charters meet requirements for legal, academic and operational components. She also said the board follows the requirements of the state’s Open Public Meetings Act.

Larson said he became interested in Spokane International Academy (SIA) because it uses the Cambridge Curriculum, a rigorous and internationally-recognized program that has prepared his colleagues and their children for top colleges. Larson said it seemed like a good way to give back. The school is located in Hillyard, an area of Spokane that has struggled economically.

Advanced Spanish, Longer School Days, Better-Paid Teachers

SIA teaches advanced Spanish, has longer school days and requires community service. The school focuses on having high-quality teachers. “The stereotype is that charters starve their teachers, which not the case with SIA, we pay our teachers higher than the local district,” Larson said.

Sen. Michael Baumgartner (R-6) said he’s excited to see how Spokane’s charter schools do in the future, calling the legislation the biggest bill of the year. “I’m pleased we have a way forward for 40 charter schools…we should be doing a lot more,” he said.

Brower said Spokane could consider opening more charter schools, if the right program presented itself and addressed a need the district has. But she’s not sure whether Spokane Schools will look to open more charters any time soon. “We would like some stability around charters before moving forward,” Brower said, saying the benefits of the schools could be counteracted by the “yo-yo effect” of the current legal uncertainty.

9 Charters Could Grow To 12 By Next Year

There are eight public charter schools operating in Washington, according to the Washington State Charter Schools Association. Six are located in Seattle, Tacoma, Kent, Highline; plus the two in Spokane.

Up to three more public charter schools may open in Washington by Fall, 2017. One would be the Green Dot Seattle 6-12 School with a projected enrollment of 1,200 students, about as many as in all nine charters currently open. Another is Willow School in Walla Walla. The 12th would be Summit Public Schools’ Atlas Charter School in West Seattle.

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