Why no charter schools in Tri-Cities?

Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldMay 24, 2014 

Less than two years after being approved by voters, charter schools are popping up across Washington but there aren't any plans for them in the Tri-Cities.

Not that there isn't any interest. Tri-City parents have been asking when a charter school may be opening in the area, according to state officials, proponents and educators. But they don't have an answer for them.

"I'm still a bit surprised someone hasn't picked it up and run with it," said Eric Sobotta, principal of Three Rivers HomeLink alternative school in Richland.

There are a number of possible reasons why charter schools haven't taken root in the Tri-Cities, officials and parents say. But they suspect this will change as more people learn about how the alternative learning programs fit with public, private and other school options.

"This is so new that a lot of people are waiting to see how the process works out," said Marta Reyes-Newberry, interim director of the state's Charter Schools Commission.

Charter schools are public schools that receive state tax dollars but have their own appointed boards of directors instead of being directly controlled by an elected school board. Charters primarily are meant to provide alternative schooling options but have also been used to advance education reform.

A majority of state voters approved Initiative 1240 in November 2012, creating the state's charter school system and paving the way for as many as 40 such schools to open during the following five years.

Benton and Franklin county voters were among the initiative's supporters, with more than 51 percent of those counties' voters in favor of charter schools.

Eight such schools have been authorized so far, with all but Spokane's PRIDE Prep School of Technology & Science located in the Seattle-Tacoma area.

Proponents in the West Valley School District outside Yakima recently filed a charter school application and a group in Sunnyside, whose application was rejected last year, plan to submit a revamped proposal. The Sunnyside application was denied because of concerns about its finance plan.

Reyes-Newberry said "there hasn't been a robust response" from the Tri-Cities about charter school possibilities. She attributed that partially to a lack of knowledge about what charter schools are and how to establish one. However, she also attributed the dearth of applications to the variety of schooling options in the area.

"It sounds like you have a population that's pretty happy with its schools," she said.

Along with traditional public schools, there are numerous private schools serving grades K-12 in the Tri-Cities.

Several public schools and related programs add more diversity, such as the science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, focused Delta High School in Richland and parent-partnership programs such as HomeLink, the Mid-Columbia Partnership in Kennewick and the Pasco Academy of Learning.

But not everyone embraces the idea of charter schools.

Some are skeptical about the benefits charter schools can offer. Though charter schools get public tax dollars, taxpayers do not get to vote for the boards of charter schools, said Ron Higgins, a substitute teacher who has run for state superintendent and the Richland School Board. That means less control over a child's education by a parent, he said

Brittany Weaver of Sunnyside is one of the backers behind the the Sunnyside group's proposal. She and her family previously lived in Michigan and Colorado where charter schools are already in operation.

"I like the philosophy," she said of charter schools. "They bring parents and teachers closer together."

Charter schools are meant to focus on at-risk students, Weaver said. The school she and others are working on would serve high-achieving students as well as English language learners and those with special needs.

Weaver has heard people at a recent charter schools conference asking why the Tri-Cities hadn't seen a charter school proposal, she said. A few parents she's met through HomeLink also have asked about the charter proposal she's working. The interest is there, she said, it may just need more time.

But she acknowledged that the diversity of Tri-City schooling options may be limiting the perceived need for a charter school. Weaver has been taking three of her five children to HomeLink once a week for courses for the past two years and admires the school's model.

"I feel I can have a better conversation with teachers now," she said.

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

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