Charter schools study state

National nonprofits watch vote, consider doing business here

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SEATTLE — Some of the most successful charter school organizations in the nation say they would like to open schools in Washington if voters approve the charter initiative on the November ballot.

Rocketship Education, which runs some of the top performing elementary schools in California's low-income areas, would love to expand to Washington, said Kristoffer Haines, vice president of national development for the seven-school organization started in San Jose, Calif., in 2006. "We're certainly interested and excited."

He added, however, that starting a school takes time. So even if voters decide to allow up to 40 public charter schools to open during the next five years, Rocketship schools probably couldn't open in the state until 2016 or 2017, after a thorough process, including approval by Washington authorities.

Haines, who lives in Corvallis, Ore., and was asked to look over Washington's initiative before it was proposed for the ballot, said he has had his eye on the Seattle-Tacoma area for a long time.

Initiative 1240 would allow the independent public schools to be established in the state for the first time. Voters rejected the idea in 1996, 2000 and 2004.

Under the initiative, any nonprofit organization could start a charter school in Washington if it gets approval from either a new state commission or a local school board that is authorized by the state school board to approve charter schools.

The schools would need to be free and open to all students just like traditional public schools. They would receive public funding based on enrollment, just like other schools. But public charter schools would be exempt from some state regulations, including some of the rules regarding hiring and firing teachers.

The Washington initiative was based on a model law created by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said Todd Ziebarth, the alliance's vice president for state advocacy and support, who feels it would attract successful charter organizations from other states.

Another charter organization with an eye on the election is Los Angeles-based Green Dot Public Schools. Green Dot, which focuses on middle and high schools in low-income areas, is starting to expand outside of Los Angeles but has yet to find a good fit on the West Coast.

"We would want the state to work with us and not be in the situation of being intruders," said Marco Petruzzi, president and chief executive officer, adding that he isn't intimately knowledgeable about Washington's charter schools initiative.

Green Dot, with about 10,000 students in its 18 schools, brags about its graduation rate (85 percent in 2011) and the college acceptance rate for its graduates (91 percent in 2011).

Petruzzi said the earliest his organization could open a school in Washington, if everything is right, would be 2014.

Charter schools usually supplement their budgets with foundation dollars, and one of the biggest donors has been Seattle's Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Although the charter organizations said they wouldn't be enticed by the possibility of being visible in the foundation's home town, Ziebarth didn't agree.

Aspire Public Schools, one of the largest charter management organizations with more than 30 schools and 12,000 students, would also consider Washington sites if the new law set up funding formulas and access to facilities in a fair way, said CEO James Wilcox.

Aspire, which also focuses on low-income students from its California base, has another requirement before moving to a new region: It wants to partner with local school districts, not compete with them, Wilcox said.

"We're not really interested in going and fighting with the local school system," he said.

Wilcox mentioned the Los Angeles Unified School District as a good example of what districts can do to use charters as part of the mix to help make sure every kid has access to a great school.

"L.A. does some really innovative things that I'd like to see in lots of other places," he said.

The Washington initiative would make charter operators eligible for state matching funds to build schools, and they would have first dibs to rent or buy public school buildings that are not being used by the district in which the new school is located.

A conversion charter school -- one set up by a school district to replace an existing public school whose students have not met state education standards -- would be able to use the school's existing building without paying rent to the district.

Ziebarth said Washington could really make a difference with charters tailored to address the state's challenges, such as closing the achievement gap for Native American kids.

"The initiative creates the space for people to come forward and offer up some new and innovative things," he said.