SEATTLE — Washington voters have decided they want to add charter schools to the education mix in the state, and the three largest districts are taking different approaches to the question: What should charter schools mean to our community?
Seattle has decided to basically ignore the question for now, Tacoma is learning and exploring, and Spokane has jumped in with both feet.
Spokane Superintendent Shelley Redinger said districts that do not embrace the possibility of charter schools may have the issue forced on them.
“We don’t want divisiveness,” said Redinger, who says the approach districts take now matters.
School districts are not required to make any immediate decisions.
The charter law approved by voters in November allows up to 40 charter schools to open in the state over the next five years. They may be authorized by the statewide Charter School Commission or by districts that get the OK from the state Board of Education.
Spokane (about 29,000 students) is one of about a dozen districts that have expressed interest in becoming authorizers. It has until today to apply. Other districts that filed an official intent to apply are: Battle Ground, Bellevue, Eastmont, Highline, Kent, Naselle, Peninsula, Port Townsend, Sequim, Sunnyside, Tacoma and Yakima.
Redinger said charter schools can bring choice and innovation. Spokane has Montessori programs in two elementary schools. It has a home-school hybrid program and it offers an option for parents who want to take a more involved role in their children’s schooling.
Redinger said her school board likes the idea of a blended district, where traditional and charter schools cooperate, learn from each other and share resources. A blended approach has been adopted in Portland, Denver and Los Angeles.
In Tacoma (about 29,000 students), school officials are taking a more cautious approach. At the end of May, the Tacoma School Board voted to delay its application to become a charter school authorizer. It may reconsider in the fall.
Tacoma Superintendent Carla Santorno said the board evolved quickly from a resolution opposing charters before the November election to a discussion of how charter partnerships could be part of a plan going forward.
Santorno had a lot of experience with charter schools in Denver, but she doesn’t consider herself a charter proponent. She does believe, however, that Tacoma may have something to gain by partnering with charters.
The district offers a variety of academic choices, from the School of the Arts to a science and math institute at the Point Defiance Zoo. Of the more than 30 Washington schools designated as innovative schools, 12 are in Tacoma, Santorno said.
The board’s original objection to charters focused on the loss of control, but Santorno agreed with Redinger that not becoming an authorizer may mean giving up whatever local control the district could maintain.
Meanwhile in Seattle (about 49,000 students), School Board President Kay Smith Blum said a variety of school models have added choice to the system. Also, she said. a new neighborhood school assignment plan has increased stability and enrollment and new buildings and technology are coming on line.
Blum said she worried that adding charter schools could disrupt progress — and that parents have expressed strong opposition.
The district is currently trying to lengthen the school day and also incorporate the new national academic standards. When all those goals are achieved — six months or a year from now — Seattle may start to look at other ways to add choice to the system, including charter schools, Blum said.