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Tacoma: School board moves ahead in process to become charter school authorizer

Post by Lewis Kamb / The News Tribune on March 28, 2013 at 6:48 pm |
March 28, 2013 6:48 pm

Even though it opposed last year’s initiative to allow charter schools in Washington, Tacoma Public Schools will now consider becoming a charter school authorizer – if only to gauge the pros and cons of the district’s potential role in the new system.

By a 4 to 1 vote Thursday, the Tacoma School Board approved sending a letter to the Washington State Board of Education that signals the district’s intent to apply to become an authorizer of the independently run, publicly funded schools.

But board members who supported the measure cautioned their action doesn’t signal they’ve changed their position on charter schools.  Rather, they said, it will give district officials about three months to thoughtfully consider whether the district should even file a formal application seeking to become an authorizer at all.

“It’s not a pro charter move,” board member Karen Vialle said. “It’s to figure out what’s best for our district and ultimately what’s best for our kids.”

Board president Debbie Winskill, who cast the lone no vote Thursday, said she didn’t need the extra time to make up her mind on the issue. More study of charters only will distract the board from its already heavy workload, she said.

“It’s brand new in this state; there’s too many unknowns,” Winskill said. “…Let’s let someone else do it first, and let’s learn from their mistakes.”

The state’s new charter law says that school districts that authorize charters would be able to charge the schools for administrative costs, but that oversight fees are capped at 4 percent of a charter school’s annual state funding. A district could also contract with its charters to provide services – special education or school lunches, for example – for a fee.

The board’s action beat an April 1 deadline for public school districts in Washington to submit intent letters – the first step in a complex new application process to become a charter school authorizer.

Initiative 1240, approved by a narrow margin of voters in November, made Washington the 42nd state in the nation to adopt charters. Charter schools could start operating in Washington in the fall of 2014.

Charter operators must be nonreligious, nonprofit organizations. The organizations must win approval either from a local school board that applies to the state to become a charter authorizer, or from a recently appointed statewide charter commission.

Before the vote Thursday, former school board member Kim Golding warned the board not to “join hands with the privatizers” who Golding said would only seek to siphon away the dwindling dollars now earmarked for public education.

“Don’t dirty your hands with the charter schools mess,” Golding said. “Leave it alone. Do not become part of the problem.”

Several members of The Ducere Group, a non-profit that intends to form a charter school in Tacoma with an emphasis on “equal learning” for both traditional and special needs students, countered that collaboration benefits everyone.

“Charter schools can be part of the solution,” said Calyn Holdaway, the nonprofit’s president. “The voice of the people has spoken. It did pass and we’re on the same side. If we can work together, we can do magical things.”

So far, five school districts in Washington have submitted notices of intent to become charter school authorizers, according to the state education board. Those districts include Battle Ground, Eastmont, Highline, Sunnyside and Spokane.

Tacoma is among a few other districts that also “have indicated they will submit or are considering notices of intent,” Jack Archer, senior policy analyst with the state board, said in an email Wednesday.

Districts have until April 1 to submit an intent notice during a first cycle of applications. They then will have until July 1 to formally apply. A second submission cycle will give districts another opportunity to submit intent letters by Oct. 1, with a formal application due by Dec. 31, Archer said.

Before the board’s vote, Tacoma Superintendent Carla Santorno said the measure “gives us an opportunity to get more information.”

The district will now have “almost three months to really look and decide what the benefits are, if there are any,” she added.

Board member Kurt Miller noted that board members have yet to make up their minds on the issue.

“All five of us, I believe, don’t have the slightest idea of whether we’re going to be an authorizer or not,” Miller said.

With approval of the intent notice, district officials said they plan to schedule and advertise more public discussions about the issue in coming weeks.

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