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Wash. Educators Focus on Cultivating Strong Schools From the Ground Up

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During the last day of the first annual Washington State Charter Schools Association Conference on Friday, conversations centered around how to build strong charter schools from the ground up in Washington state and what best practices charters in Washington can glean from the experiences of other states.

One panel discussion, which was standing-room only, focused on how to build strong collaborative relationships between school districts and charter schools. Jeannette Vaughn, the director of K-12 options and innovations for Spokane public schools, talked about her district's decision to embrace charter schools by becoming the only school district in Washington state to apply and receive permission to authorize charters. In addition to having a forward-thinking superintendent who pushed for the move, she said the district wanted to be "proactive rather than reactive to the charter law."

"If we didn't choose to be a charter operator, charters would come into the arena, and we wouldn't have any control over who came in," said Vaughn. "This way, we can be intentional about what types of charters we want." So far the district has approved one charter school to open in 2015-16—PRIDE Prep.¬†

Spokane has also become a district-charter compact city, receiving funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to strengthen collaborations between the school district and charter schools there, in the program's most recent round of cities named this past January. (Education Week receives funding from the Gates Foundation, which supports the newspaper's coverage of the education industry and K-12 innovation. The newspaper retains sole editorial control over coverage.)

But Sarah Yatsko, a senior research analyst for the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, which tracks such trends, talked about the successes and failures of those compacts in the 20 cities that currently have them in place, pointing out that oftentimes they are quite fragile and can break down during leadership changes. The compacts, which focus on allowing charters and districts to share best practices and facilities, among other goals, also require a great deal of time and energy to make work.

"A lot of these compact meetings are pulling people away from their day jobs," said Yatsko. Educators must ask themselves whether it is worth the time and whether or not the payoff is being seen inside the classroom. "There are gains," said Yatsko, "but the jury is still out about the sustainability and benefits and risks."

Another panel discussion in the afternoon focused on the different players that oversee charter schools and how they interact. The panel, which included a member of the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, a representative from the Washington State Charter School Commission, and someone from the Washington State Board of Education, spent most of the discussion outlining the general roles each of them play in helping to ensure that charter schools are high quality.

Overall, it seemed clear that there is much to be learned about how the charter law in Washington will be implemented and whether or not changes will be needed moving forward. Each of the different parties are working together to make sure there are no negative unintended consequences of the law as written and to ensure that everyone knows what role they play in helping to oversee the quality of the new charters.

Throughout the conference, many folks touched on the criticism and backlash that working in the charter space invites. They talked about maintaining a laser-beam focus on their mission to serve the most underserved children and open high-quality schools. But there was also the underlying excitement of doing something new that would change the public school landscape in Washington, hopefully for the better. We'll be watching closely to see how the law plays out in the lives of students and parents, and perhaps we'll have an even better picture next year, at the 2nd annual conference. 

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