Tri-City school districts not keen on charter schools

Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldOctober 5, 2013 

Tri-City school districts are in no hurry to help create charter schools within their boundaries, at least not for the time being.

Other school districts around the state, including the West Valley School District in Yakima, have at least expressed interest.

The Spokane School District recently became the first school district allowed to review and approve charter school applications and is actively seeking proposals.

Officials with the Kennewick, Richland and Pasco school districts said other priorities and a lack of clear expectations from state education officials discouraged them from applying.

They also noted that they already cater to many of the things that charter schools offer families, such as innovation and a variety of educational experiences.

"Most of what can be done in charter schools can be done in public schools," said Richland School Board Chairman Rick Jansons.

After years of ballot rejections, voters approved a measure almost a year ago to allow up to 40 charter schools to open in Washington over the next 5 years. Charters can be approved by a state commission or by school districts who are authorized by the state.

Proponents say charter schools can better improve student performance, especially among disadvantaged students, because they have more flexibility with curriculum and other classroom modifications. Opponents say charters take money from public schools, as well as remove local taxpayer control and the guarantee that students receive a quality education.

Charter schools receive state funding based on enrollment, but are operated by their own board of directors, independent of the local public school district. They can't be sectarian or religious and may not charge tuition to student families. The schools also aren't subject to some of the same rules as school districts when it comes to teacher qualifications and other issues.

Tri-City school board members and superintendents looked into the possibility of charter schools earlier this year. No one has approached the districts about starting one, officials said.

The Kennewick School Board opted for a wait-and-see approach, partially because of the newness of charters in the state and the lack of definition in the rules governing them, Superintendent Dave Bond said.

"At this point, the board feels that we are creating options for students," Bond said.

Pasco School Board Vice Chairman Bill Leggett recently told the Herald's editorial board he's open to the idea of charters but they aren't one of his top priorities.

"(The board) has so many other things on its plate, it just hasn't come up," he said.

The Spokane School District sought to become a charter school authorizer as a means of increasing student options and improving student performance, according to documents on its website.

"The Board of Directors for Spokane does not see charters as the only way to bring more options to Spokane, but they are interested in pursuing this as one potential option," the website said.

Tri-City district officials already respond to demands for a menu of educational options for students, they said. All three districts have alternative high schools -- Kennewick has two -- which offer an experience different from a traditional high school.

Most prominently, all three districts operate Delta High School, a science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, school with 400 students that has received several honors for its educational model.

Richland and Kennewick also have Three Rivers HomeLink and Mid-Columbia Parent Partnership, respectively, providing an even more customizable education for parents wanting more direct control over instructing their children. Other programs include from online courses and dual language tracks in Pasco and Kennewick.

And while all those options provide a lot of choice, district officials said, they aren't stopping there. Pasco is slated to open three new elementary schools over the next two years and they will have a STEM-focused curriculum. Richland is looking at starting a magnet program, though it's unclear what it will be based on, such as STEM or the arts.

"I think people want more responsiveness and innovation," Jansons told the Herald. "It's all customer demand."

-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver

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