Spokane Public Schools pursues charter schools
Visions of the kinds of charter schools that could open in Spokane are emerging: a dual-language elementary or middle school; a high school that incorporates two years of college; an academically rigorous elementary school; and a K-8 science, technology, engineering and mathematics school.
Those are the ideas Spokane Public Schools is vetting to determine which best fits the district and the community.
By July 1, the picture will become clearer as officials from Spokane Public Schools and 12 other districts statewide submit applications detailing the types of charter schools they hope to host.
The charter schools must be designed to help at-risk students, which include low-income and gifted students. The applications from school districts will offer a glimpse of what district officials think will best benefit their students.
“We expect a mix of what we call ‘homegrown’ and charter-management organizations,” said Chris Korsmo, CEO of the Washington League of Education Voters, which backed the initiative allowing charter schools in the state. “To us, the most important part of this is providing students and families with high-quality options and serving children at risk that don’t usually have high-quality options.”
Charters are nontraditional specialty schools operating under a contract that outlines powers, responsibilities and performance expectations. The schools are public, governed by a special board in some cases, and tend to focus on a particular study area or learning method. The schools are not run by the districts in which they are located.
Washington is one of the last states in the nation to allow charters into the public school system, after voters approved Initiative 1240 in November. Idaho and Oregon have operated the schools for more than a decade.
The Washington State Board of Education does not have to approve all the school districts that applied as authorizers. The law calls for eight charters to be approved this year and 40 over the next five years. The districts will find out in August if they made the cut.
“The competition among districts to be charter school authorizers is a situation that we want,” Korsmo said. “It’s great to have high-quality choices, and with only eight spots per year, we hope it’s competitive.”
Charters can make a school district more attractive, bringing families who left for private schools or home schooling back into public schools.
On the other hand, teachers unions across Washington opposed the initiative.
A lawsuit filed in February by a coalition of educators and community groups challenges the constitutionality of the new charter school law. The complaint says the law violates the state’s constitution by “improperly diverting public school funds to private nonprofit groups” not subject to local voter control and creates another roadblock to funding basic education.
Regardless, several districts are pouncing on the opportunity to host one of the nontraditional schools.
Spokane is the largest district seeking to authorize charter schools and the only one in Eastern Washington. In addition to the school districts, the Washington Charter School Commission – a group of nine people appointed by the governor’s office – also can authorize charter schools anywhere in the state.
The first schools are expected to open in 2014-15.
Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Shelley Redinger, who facilitated a charter while superintendent at an Oregon school district, announced as soon as the initiative passed that she wanted a charter school in the district.
Her boldness has been noted by state charter school advocates and potential donors.
“The district’s willingness to do things differently is important,” Korsmo said. “It can be very scary for district leadership to look at things differently. She’s smart, strategic and courageous.”
Redinger has already been exploring partnerships with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, she said. Next month, members of the district’s leadership team and the president of the local teachers union, the Spokane Education Association, will travel with Gates Foundation employees to Spring Branch, Texas, to tour a charter school option called the “portfolio district approach.”
Basically, it’s a districtwide approach offering a variety of programs within the public school system rather than forming one independent, specialized charter school.
Redinger also is looking to Portland Public Schools as a model. That district has nine charter schools: two nonprofits and seven created by community members, parents or a combination of both. The schools’ focuses include French immersion, academically rigorous elementary education, a high school geared toward leadership and entrepreneurship, and an arts- and sciences-based elementary.
“Our charter schools contribute to the overall portfolio of options that PPS offers families,” said Kristen Miles, Portland Public Schools’ senior manager of charter schools. Two decades after the first charter school in the U.S. opened in 1992, there are more than 5,300 charter schools nationwide that enroll nearly 1.6 million students.
“One of the benefits of waiting so long, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” said Chris Martin, a Washington Charter School Commission member and executive director of Prodigy Northwest, which supports gifted education programs. “We can learn what’s best from other states.”