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Top Charter School Organizations Eye WA

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SEATTLE (AP) — Some of the most successful charter school organizations in the nation say they would like to open schools in Washington state if voters approve the charter initiative on the November ballot.

Rocketship Education, which runs some of the top performing elementary schools in California’s low-income areas, would love to expand to Washington state, said Kristoffer Haines, vice president of national development for the seven-school organization started in San Jose, Calif., in 2006.

“We’re certainly interested and excited,” Haines said.

He added, however, that the process to start a new school takes time. So even if Washington voters decide to allow up to 40 public charter schools to open during the next five years, the first Rocketship schools probably couldn’t open in the state until 2016 or 2017, after a thorough process, including approval by Washington authorities.

Haines, who lives in Corvalis, Ore., and was asked to look over Washington’s initiative before it was proposed for the ballot, said he has had his eye on the Seattle-Tacoma area for a long time.

Initiative 1240 would allow the independent public schools to be established in Washington state for the first time. Voters have rejected the idea three other times, in 1996, 2000 and 2004.

Under the terms of the initiative, any nonprofit organization could start a charter school in Washington if their plan is approved by either a new statewide commission or a local school board that has been authorized by the state school board to approve charter schools.

The schools would need to be free and open to all students just like traditional public schools. They would receive public funding based on student enrollment, just like other schools. But public charter schools would be exempt from some state regulations, including some of the rules regarding hiring and firing teachers.

The Washington initiative was based on a model law created by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said Todd Ziebarth, the advocacy organization’s vice president for state advocacy and support. He feels it would attract successful charter organizations from other states.

Another charter organization keeping a close eye on Washington’s election is Los Angeles-based Green Dot Public Schools. Green Dot, which focuses on middle and high schools in low income areas, is just starting to expand outside of Los Angeles but has yet to find a good fit on the West Coast.

The key for Green Dot would be making sure they had enough dollars to open and run schools in Washington and that the state wants to work with them, said Marco Petruzzi, president and chief executive officer.

“We would want the state to work with us and not be in the situation of being intruders,” Petruzzi said, adding that he isn’t intimately knowledgeable about Washington’s charter schools initiative.

Green Dot, which has about 10,000 students enrolled it its 18 schools, brags about its graduation rate (85 percent in 2011) and the college acceptance rate for its graduates (91 percent in 2011).

Petruzzi said the earliest his organization could open a school in Washington, if everything is right, would be 2014.

Charter schools usually supplement their budget with foundation dollars and one of the biggest donors has been Seattle’s Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Although the charter organizations said they wouldn’t be enticed by the possibility of being in Gates Foundation’s home town, Ziebarth didn’t agree.

Aspire Public Schools, one of the largest charter management organizations with more than 30 schools and 12,000 students served, would also consider expansion into Washington state if the new law set up funding formulas and access to facilities in a fair way, said CEO James Wilcox.

Aspire, which also focuses on low-income students from its California base, has another requirement before moving to a new region: they want to partner with local school districts, not compete with them, Wilcox said.

“We’re not really interested in going and fighting with the local school system,” he said.

Wilcox mentioned the Los Angeles Unified School District as a good example of what districts can do to use charters as part of the mix to help make sure every kid has access to a great school.

“L.A. does some really innovative things that I’d like to see in lots of other places,” he said.

The Washington initiative would make charter operators eligible for state matching funds for school construction, and they would have first dibs to rent or buy public school buildings that are not being used by the district in which the new school is located.

A conversion charter school, which is set up by a school district to take the place of an existing public school whose students have been failing to meet state education standards, would be able to use the school’s existing building without paying rent to the district, according to the initiative.

Some other successful charter organizations who are not currently interested in Washington include Alliance College-Ready Public Schools and KIPP Public Charter Schools in California and New York’s Achievement First.

Ziebarth said Washington state could have an opportunity to really make a difference with charters by opening new schools designed address the state’s unique challenges, such as programs that focus on closing the achievement gap for Native American kids.

“The initiative creates the space for people to come forward and offer up some new and innovative things,” he said.

– Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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