The Tri-Cities could be missing out on improved educational opportunities by not having any charter schools, officials said at a policy conference Tuesday.
Thirty-one applications were turned in for charter schools across the state since Washington voters approved them last year, but none of the proposed schools are in the Tri-Cities, said Liv Finne, education director with the Washington Policy Center.
A total of eight charter schools could be approved this year, with 40 being allowed over the next five years.
The schools can apply to the state commission for charters or school districts can apply to issue the charters themselves. The application deadline was last month.
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"You have a large community that is not being well served by the public schools, particularly in Pasco," Finne said after a panel discussion at the Solutions Summit, which the policy center played host to at the Pasco Red Lion Hotel.
The think tank's event, attended by 330 people, also covered issues such as health care, transportation and sustainable government budgeting.
The panel also included Cindi Williams, a member of the state Charter School Commission, and Spokane School District Superintendent Shelley Redinger, whose district recently became the first in the state allowed to review and approve charter school applications.
The schools, which receive state funding based on enrollment, are free to attend and anyone can apply to attend, including special education and disabled students, Williams said. Students are chosen based on an open lottery, with more than a million kids on waiting lists to attend charter schools nationwide.
"Our biggest challenge in Washington state is people don't know what they are," she said.
Charter schools can be more flexible with their curriculum because they do not have to deal with teachers unions and bureaucracy like public schools do, Williams said. She said Washington may be at an advantage because it was the last state to approve charter schools, after several ballot rejections. The state can learn from other states.
"We're really able to hand-pick focus areas where there's real evidence after two decades of learning, so we're not trying this out for the first time in Washington state," she said.
Spokane schools have looked at a number of states and see California as a poor example and Texas and Colorado as good models to follow, Redinger said.
The charter schools are run by their own boards, but Redinger said school districts can still use them to help with ideas in finding new programs, such as public Montessori schools.
"We are behind in Washington state," she said. "We need to work hard to make sure our students compete."
Another panel at Tuesday's conference discussed making Washington a "right to work" state, in which employees are not forced to pay dues if they work at a unionized business.
Eric Fruits, an economist at Portland State University, said right to work is not anti-union, it is pro free choice.
Right to work states see annual employment growth of about 2.6 percent, about twice that of "force unionization" states like Washington, Fruits said. About a half point of that can be directly attributed to states having right to work laws.
"It really, really grows over time," he said.
Scott Rasmussen, a co-founder of the ESPN sports network who went on to start a national polling firm, told the luncheon audience at the summit that Obamacare could mean positive results for Republicans in the 2014 mid-term elections.
Rasmussen, whose poll showed Mitt Romney with a lead over Obama going into last year's election, said Republicans will most likely keep control of the House of Representatives and pick up seats in the Senate.
"That law is the greatest gift to Republicans in a very long time," he said of the health care act. "It is going to keep rolling out in the Republican's favor."
But Republicans can't merely say they are opposed to Obamacare, Rasmussen said.
"They need to find a way to say, "This is how we are going to take care of your health care needs,'" he said.
The Washington Policy Center will hold another Solutions Summit starting at 7:30 a.m. today in Bellevue, with most of the same programs.
-- For more information, go to www.washingtonpolicy.org.
-- Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom