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Shawn Vestal: School board smart to reject AAS charter

Shawn Vestal

If you’re concerned about charter schools coming to Spokane, take heart from the story of the charter schools that won’t be coming to Spokane.

Spokane Public Schools board has approved the state’s first charter school, a plan developed by a longtime local middle school principal. But it also rejected two charter proposals. These rejections were grounded on detailed reviews that were rigorous and unforgiving. They were resistant to the lure of the glib, unproven promises that surround charter schools and school choice. They demanded specifics, details, viable plans, and they critiqued the applicants in no uncertain terms.

These proposals were not turned down; they were swatted away.

It was a clear signal that “edupreneurs” will have to do more than produce well-phrased promises. In contrast to educational leaders in Idaho – who have spent years clambering onto, and now sheepishly off of, a corporate “reform” bandwagon that voters rejected – Spokane’s are showing foresight and due diligence.

This is important, not because charter schools are terrible and not because charter schools are wonderful – but because they can be either. The Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University has attempted to measure the learning gains at charter schools in 25 states, the District of Columbia and New York City against comparable public schools, using standardized test results.

In 2009, the New York Times reported, it found that “37 percent of charter schools were actually providing a worse education than local public schools.” That figure declined to 31 percent in the 2013 study. But the main characteristic of charter schools, broadly speaking, is that it’s impossible to say much about them broadly, given how much variety there is.

There are, if you ask me, plenty of reasons to be wary of a plan to divert limited resources from the school system into little specialty pockets. But that ship has sailed. Washington voters approved charter schools in 2012. Spokane Public Schools became the only entity that could approve charters beside the state commission, and it has worked to develop the best possible outcomes for the system.

Spokane engaged four people, through the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, to review its proposals. Two are district officials, two come from outside the state. Jeannette Vaughn, the chief district official in charge of charter development and a member of the review team, said that SPS is devoted to doing it right. Vaughn previously ran a charter school in California; she said she understands people’s wariness and recognizes how important it is to make sure these first steps are taken wisely.

Of the two charter proposals rejected Wednesday night, one is particularly instructive about the district’s review process. The Academy of Arts and Sciences proposed opening an “academically rigorous, inquiry-based, college preparatory” K-12 school in Spokane that would open with 150 students and grow to at least 1,000 over five years. AAS already runs six schools in California. Its application for a Spokane charter was found insufficient on seemingly every single measure.

“There is no clear or well-developed educational plan or approach and model upon which to base replication,” according to the review team’s recommendation to deny the AAS application. “AAS describes itself as both a fully virtual and blended model and was unable to provide, both in the application and in the capacity interview, a satisfactory description of the logistics of the model, their rationale for choosing it, or how the model supports the selected programmatic offerings.”

This is for a program, remember, that is already up and running in California, taking in state dollars and enrolling students. The reviewers said the application failed to “present a clear or compelling education model,” to illustrate how the organization would operate or to substantiate its claims about what it says it teaches. It said that charter representatives, in interviews, contradicted each other, could not resolve mistakes and discrepancies in its application and generally lacked the “expertise, experience and planning capacity” to do what it proposed.

It found that the AAS schools in existence had limited performance data, and the data that did exist showed that they were enrolling fewer students of color, fewer poor students and fewer students with disabilities than their districts overall. AAS schools were falling behind the district’s other students in most, though not all, academic categories.

AAS is a nonprofit organization, but the reviewers were concerned with the huge surpluses the school planned to run; the proposal it submitted anticipated an eventual “profit” of 71 percent. AAS representatives said that was an error – one of many errors and discrepancies in its application.

Too many, reviewers said, and the school board agreed. All of us with an interest in Spokane schools should be glad they did.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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