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Why Would The Seattle School District Want To Authorize & Oversee Charter Schools?

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Kyle Stokes
/
KPLU
In September 2014, a student at Seattle's First Place Scholars Charter School, right, and his mother prepared for a ceremonial ribbon-cutting to mark the school's re-opening as Washington state's first charter school.

Seattle School Board president Sherry Carr would rather Washington had not entered the charter school game in the first place. But eventually, she says the state's largest district may have to decide whether it wants to play.

Only one Washington school district, Spokane, currently decides whether to allow applicants to start charter schools within its boundaries and oversees their operations once they open; they're the state's only local "charter authorizer" — for now.

But three Seattle School Board members recently suggested the district ought to explore becoming an authorizer, too.

At a session last week, most Seattle board members said they're not interested in applying this year. But board members Harium Martin-Morris and Stephan Blanford expressed openness to the idea, and Carr said the district will likely be forced to explore the idea as new charter schools change the local education landscape.

Charter schools — publicly-funded schools run by independent non-profits — will compete for teachers, principals, levy dollars and enrollment, Carr said.

"There's a lot of impacts we need to work whether we're an authorizer or not," Carr said. "If I can control my destiny, I would rather be in a position to do so."

'The Writing Was On The Wall'

By September, there are supposed to be three charter schools open within Seattle Public Schools' boundaries. Every student from Seattle enrolling in those charters represents a loss of per-pupil funding from the district. In that sense, charters and traditional public schools compete directly in a zero-sum game.

But a Spokane Public Schools official says the district applied to become an authorizer so they have some say in the process of opening and maintaining charter schools within their district. Authorizers not only field applications and decide which charters can open, but also have powers to close schools that don't meet performance goals spelled out in their charter contract.

District spokesperson Kevin Morrison says local school leaders also realized that some of Spokane's nearly-30,000 students in the district might do better in alternative settings charters can offer.  

After Washington's charter school law passed, "the writing was on the wall," Morrison said. "I think [the Spokane School Board] felt that it's much better to be able to review the partnerships that you have, to review the applicants that you have and then to maintain a positive working relationship with those [charter] schools."

Becoming an authorizer also entitles a district to collect modest fees from the charter schools they oversee. In Seattle Public Schools, estimates show those fees would likely total between $30,000 and $60,000 per school.

'We Really Don't Have Any Control'

But the Washington State Charter School Commission also authorizes charter schools. While prospective charter operators can only apply to one authorizer in any given year, there's nothing in the state's charter law to prevent the commission from authorizing a school in Spokane over the district's wishes.

Given that, Seattle school board member Sharon Peaslee says she can't see the point of becoming an authorizer.

"We really don't have any control, because if we decide we don't want a charter operation in our city, they can go around us and be authorized by the state," Peaslee said last week.

"Let it be [the state's] responsibility," she added. "We're not going to have a whole lot of control anyway. We're not going to be able to say no."

Commission executive director Joshua Halsey says state officials would likely want to have a conversation with a prospective charter school operator if they applied to the state instead of to a local school district with authorizing powers.

'We Do Need To Consider It'

If they wished to take the first step toward becoming an authorizer this year, Seattle school board members would have to take a vote by their June 3 meeting.

Carr, who opposed the voter initiative that created Washington state's charter school law, doesn't believe the board should take that step yet.

"Eventually, probably sooner than later, we do need to consider becoming an authorizer," Carr said.

Charter schools, she added, "will impact us whether we're an authorizer or not."

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.
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