Center on Reinventing Public Education: Washington’s First District Authorizer Approaches Charters with a Collaborative Mindset

Washington State voters approved a charter school initiative in 2012—its fourth appearance on the ballot—making Washington the 42nd state to allow charter schools. Spokane Public Schools (SPS) submitted its application to authorize charter schools shortly after the law went in to effect. SPS is the first and, to date, only district out of 295 in the state that is authorizing charter schools. SPS approved Pride Prep, which is slated to open in the city in the fall of 2015. Seven additional new charter schools are now authorized by the state and will open across Washington, one in 2014 and two in 2015.

Located on the Idaho border, SPS is the state’s second largest district, educating nearly 30,000 students; 57 percent live in poverty. Given that Washington’s charter law requires charter schools to focus on educating underserved children, Spokane is a natural fit and the city has approached charter schools with a fundamentally different mindset then its district peers across the state. SPS sees charter schools as one of a portfolio of options to help increase high-quality seats for its students. Remarkably, it has built collaboration into the charter-district relationship from the beginning.

Why has Spokane taken a proactive approach while others have not? SPS Chief Academic Officer Steve Gering explained that the community demanded more options for students and that the SPS board saw charters as an opportunity to help them meet this demand. In addition to becoming an authorizer, the board hired a new superintendent, Spokane local Shelley Redinger, who had seen firsthand in the Portland, Oregon area how collaborating with charter schools can help a district looking for new options.

Prior to approving Pride Prep, SPS drafted its first district-charter collaboration compact, which codifies the relationship that it seeks to have with all its charter schools. One of the issues covered in the compact is shared professional development to improve teacher effectiveness. Another is open communication between the district and charters, including a “no surprises” policy for parent complaints and other issues. SPS has committed to making sure parents understand that they have the freedom to choose charter schools and that in turn, charter schools agree to uphold their commitment to focus on traditionally underserved students.

SPS hopes to learn vicariously from Pride Prep and other charter schools that follow how new and promising models such as blended learning and extended school days can potentially improve student outcomes across all schools in Spokane. The district understands that their charter schools will have more freedom to experiment with innovative methods and that an open relationship with these schools can help the district learn from their work.

SPS will ask all new charter applicants to sign the compact as part of their charter agreement with the district. However, SPS recognizes that the agreement must be a living document and that it will inevitably need to be modified as new charter schools open. For now, the district looks forward to working with Brenda McDonald, Pride Prep’s founding principal, and to being a role model for the rest of Washington State on how a district can embrace charter schools, rather than viewing them as a threat to the status quo.

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