Activists, teachers apply for charter schools panel

Group will approve some of Washington's first such endeavors

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SEATTLE -- Education activists, teachers, lawyers, a PTA leader and a woman who used to work with charter schools in California are among the applicants to the new state commission that is expected to approve some of Washington's first charter schools.

The governor, the lieutenant governor and the speaker of the House have until March 6 to each appoint three volunteers to the new Charter School Commission for four-year terms.

They will have a variety of people to choose from, The Associated Press has learned through public records requests and interviews with people expected to apply. There is no deadline for applying and their choices are not limited to those who fill out applications.

Washington became the 42nd state to OK the independent public schools in November. Voters authorized the opening of up to 40 charter schools over five years.

Charter schools will be authorized through two different paths in Washington: through local school boards that get permission from the State Board of Education to be authorizers and through the new statewide commission.

The makeup of the commission was outlined in the charter schools initiative approved by voters, but the new statute is not specific about a lot of details. It does not say how a chair will be chosen, for example, and it does not specify what kind of staff support the nine volunteers will have.

Former Gov. Chris Gregoire put money in her budget to start the commission from within her office, said a spokeswoman for Gov. Jay Inslee, Jaime Smith. The chair will either be chosen by the commission members or the three people making the appointments, but that hasn't been determined, Smith said.

The statute requires members of the commission support the idea of charter schools as a strategy for strengthening public education. As a group, they should possess experience in public and nonprofit governance, management and finance, public school leadership, assessment, curriculum, instruction and public school law.

Applications come in

The governor's office had received 18 applicants through its online system as of the middle of this past week. Some people also put their names on a virtual list in the lieutenant governor's and speaker's offices. Those offices do not have an online application process and people said they applied through email or letters.

Jim Spady, vice president and legal counsel of Dick's Drive-In Restaurants Inc., has been advocating for charter schools in the state for nearly 20 years. He believes he also would be an asset to the commission because of his experience with contract law.

Spady was appointed by previous governors to education task forces and said he believes charter schools will help improve education choices for disadvantaged kids.

"Many children are not getting the quality educational opportunities they deserve," said the father of two grown children and the grandfather of one.

Liz Finne, director of the Center for Education Reform at the Washington Policy Center, is another lawyer and education advocate who would like to serve on the commission.

Because of her job, she has done years of research on charter schools and wants to put that to further use as a member of the commission. She was quick to mention, however, 10 other people she would consider if she was making the decision.

"I think my best qualification is that I have studied the charter schools that have worked and I know how difficult it is to make any school be successful," Finne said. "I'm someone who would be very careful to choose only the best applicants."

Ryan Grant, a fifth-grade teacher at Michael Anderson Elementary on the Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, said he has been attracted to the idea of charter schools thanks to teaching kids who have been in charter schools in other states, plus the experience of parenting a 6-year-old who is deaf and getting the help she needs at a special school.

"I've seen the power that specialized programs can have," Grant said. "I see a lot of potential around the state for innovative schools."

Although Grant is active in the teacher's union, the Washington Education Association, which opposes charter schools, he said he is cautiously optimistic about charter schools and has seen them be successful in other states.

"It would be neat to be part of it," he said.

Grant, Finne and Spady said they would like to see a mix of people on the commission.

Other applicants include:

• A consultant who used to administer charter schools for the California Department of Education and now lives on Bainbridge Island.

• A former community college administrator from Renton.

• A former public school teacher and administrator who lives in Issaquah.

• A former Seattle School Board member.

• A former classroom teacher who now focuses on school technology in the Centennial School District in Portland.

• A PTA activist and lawyer from Redmond who pushed the state PTA to support the idea of charter schools.