Monday, April 13, 2015

Charter Talk

Let's start with the local which would be the Work Session on Seattle Schools becoming a charter authorizer.  This work session on was April 8th and the staff leads were Ronald Boyd (Legal),  Erin Bennett, Director Policy and Strategy Research, and Clover Codd, Executive Director of Strategic Planning & Partnerships.

All the Board members were present as was Superintendent Nyland.  Nyland led with "From some time ago, the Board opposed them (charters) and that was then and this is now."  He said something about SPS being the biggest district.  He said the deadline to apply to to be an authorizer was in June and "we have just enough time to get on-board."  

He also said SPS had "no option of not playing" as part of future levies will be going to charters (which is true).  He said SPS would want to know about charters located within district; what their focus is, location, etc.  He failed to mention that that information can be easily gained without the district being an authorizer.

Clover Codd said the Executive Committee had asked for more information in January and staff had promised they would "come back after studying the issue."  Codd referenced Tacoma Schools' FAQ page on charters as being helpful.  (I note that Tacoma has not become an authorizer and, in fact, had asked the Charter Commission to limit the number of charters that can be authorized into one district.  More on this in a minute.  The mayor of Tacoma supports them.)

(At this point I was wondering about the efficiacy of having Creative Approach schools if the district wants to be a charter authorizer.  I can say - with some authority - that within our own district are many schools that in other states would only exist as charters.  You don't need to be a charter to be innovative.)

At this point, directors asked some questions.

President Carr likened the issue to the egg being on the edge of the table or fallen on the floor.  She said the issue of charters was on the floor.

Director McLaren asked if charter schools in Washington have to serve all students (can't drop Sped students as in other parts of the country).  This was an odd question because it is absolutely illegal to for a public school to say that they won't serve a Sped student.  Codd said yes, they would serve Sped students.  What was failed to be noted is that despite being public schools, charters have a history of exiting Sped students on the premise that they don't have the ability to serve them. 

Director Blanford then asked about the previous Board resolution against charters.  He said he wanted to "learn how that decision was made."  Director Carr and Ms. Bennett told him that the decision was documented in both Curriculum and Instruction Committee meeting minutes, Board meeting minutes and video of the Board meeting.  (I have no idea why Blanford would not just do the research rather than ask for a lengthy explanation of the resolution during a work session.)

Then Mr. Boyd discussed the charter lawsuit, explaining that a King County Superior Court judge had ruled that charter schools were not "common schools" under the Washington State Constitution and therefore, were not eligible for state funds.  The Supreme Court heard the case in October and we are all still waiting for the decision from them. 

(I'm thinking they will split the baby - they will say charters are common schools and allow them state funds BUT say that the provision in the Constitution about oversight of all common schools by the state superintendent of public instruction must be enforced.  What that oversight might look like will likely be something that will involve a lot of arguing.)

He also explained that the district, as an authorizer, would get 4% of those state funds in order to do their job of oversight of any charter schools. 

Boyd then explained the process of the conversion charter school.  (He left out but I'll add that I cannot find any other state that has a provision like Washington state's which allows the majority of parents at a school OR teachers at a school to sign a petition to allow a charter takeover.  As well, whatever charter group takes over the school would, in addition to the petition, have to go thru the entire charter application process and be approved. Boyd did err in saying "community" rather than parents.  I think you could get confused on what "community" means for any given school.)  He said, "We would lose that building" and added that the district would still be responsible for the major maintenance.

Director Peaslee asked about the students in the existing school. It was explained that they could stay in the new school (and not go thru any lottery) or they would enroll in another SPS building.  The closing of one building would, of course, set up a chain reaction of trying to find space for those students and possibly, a boundary change for a region.

Codd also said that charters are allowed to be part of the levy process planning.  However, the law is not explicit here and I suspect that "allowed" could have a vague meaning to any given district. 

Director Peters asked about the conversion charter, saying that her understanding is that the petition has to be 50%+1 for takeover.  That was confirmed as correct.

Codd explained that there is currently one charter school, First Place Scholars, with one more to come in the fall from Summit (Summit Sierra High  in the International District). Green Dot (name not known) will be somewhere in the southeast for grades 6-12 and opens in Fall 2016.

Peaslee asked about the buildings for these charters.  Codd said they had to find their own buildings.  She said that if SPS had available buildings, the law would allow them to lease or purchase at or below fair market value. 

Peaslee also asked about dollars going to charters (I think she was getting at the district losing students and therefore, the money attached to each student).  Peters added that there are costs to a district with charters in terms of resources and attention.

McLaren brought up the issue of conversion charters changing boundaries which, oddly, President Carr rebuffed saying that was a conversation about growth boundaries and those were already approved. 

Blanford stated that the financial implications are that the dollars the state gives for each student would mean SPS' funding would go down with charters.

Peaslee circled back to Carr's egg example and said that the "egg may be on the floor but the Court hasn't ruled yet."  (It was interesting how Carr and then, Martin-Morris tried to deflect the coming Court ruling.  Martin-Morris said that "there was nothing we could do to make them go away." I'm thinking he is either unaware of the Supreme Court's pending ruling and/or the abilities of the Legislature to overturn laws.)

Peaslee also worried outloud about teachers' salaries (meaning charter teachers) but was told that charters have to figure out their own teachers' salaries.  Ditto on transportation (although a charter could contract with the district for transportation services but that's true whether a district is an authorizer or not).

Codd pointed out that charter authorizers get to write their own RFP rules and regulations.  She did say there are costs to this kind of work - both in creating the rules and overseeing them.  She said it was "like the City pre-K, it costs us money" for this work.

Except that at least the district would get some fee funds for overseeing charters whereas all the staff work on the City's preschool plan has been for free (to the City).

Codd explained that with being an authorizer there would be "systems alignment."  I have no idea why she would think that as every single charter is its own district and even if a regular school district is an authorizer, they cannot mandate that charters within its borders align to their systems.  She also mentioned "data sharing" which is another red flag.

Blanford was nodding and mentioned "just having choices for parents."  Bennett said that being a charter authorizer would help for facilities planning and the district could influence where a charter could be located.  (A big red flag just went up when she said this.)

Bennett then said that the Charter Commission has a "gentlemen's agreement" with Spokane School District over NOT putting charters they approve in Spokane's district.  That is not technically illegal to do but I think it thwarts the idea that a charter applicant can make the choice between which authorizer to apply to (they can only apply to one in a year).

So if a charter applicant thinks that they want to locate in Spokane but feels they like the provisions of the Charter Commission's process better than Spokane's, they should be able to apply and NOT worry that their application will be summarily ignored because it's in Spokane's district.

Bennett said that the Commission would not approve "charters that go around locals."

I asked the Washington State Charter Commission the following questions on this issue.  Here's their reply:

She said the law doesn't do that but that the Commission has a "gentlemen's agreement" with Spokane - the only district authorizer in the state - to not open charters there. 
Is that true?

We do not have a “gentlemen’s agreement” with Spokane Public Schools, we have a collaborative working relationship.
If so, will the Commission do that for any new district authorizer?
We would work towards developing a collaborative working relationship with any district authorizer.
Also, if so, is that legal for the Commission to do so?
It is completely legal to develop a collaborative working relationship between a state agency and a school district.
I am a bit perplexed, to say the least, by this answer but I guess "collaborative working relationship" is the new "gentlemen's agreement."

Blanford, seemingly not at all understanding the charter law, asked if schools "in our borders" are "ours" like First Place Scholars.  Bennett said no, that the authorizer (the Charter Commission) is also the overseer.  Bennett said a district has more control as an authorizer.

I can only say that that "control" is minimal. A district could try to control the type/location of a charter but honestly, if charter applicants got wind that was what was happening, they could appeal to the Charter Commission to give their application due consideration (no matter if they were applying in a district that was an authorizer).  And, after approval, the district has ZERO say in anything about how the charter runs beyond what has been approved.

Codd explained a "con" to being an authorizer would be the need for "extensive public engagement."  Well, in a city that voted 60% against charters, yes, I think the Board would need to do some explaining.

She also explained that the Board sending a letter of intent to apply to be an authorizer would be nonbinding. 

Then they went to Next Steps and Discussion.

President Carr said they were not making any decisions tonight but collecting "input." 

Martin-Morris said that staff is asking how we want to "interact with this reality, going forward."  What was interesting is staff never did say how the district could interact without being an authorizer.  That certainly is a subject for discussion.  Martin-Morris asked if they want to "control their destiny or blow in the breeze?"  Again, not considering there is a third option.

Peaslee said she was "bristling with this whole thing."  She said the majority of Seattle voters said no and "we have no control."  She said let the "state handle it" and let it be their responsibility.  She said this "flies in the face of underfunding" of schools "and "unfunded mandates."  She said it bothered her that they have underfunded Creative Approach schools and closed some and that if "we value" options, then we need to support our own Option schools.

Peters said that Tacoma as well as Highline had said no to being a charter authorizer.  She said that there will be three charter schools in the district boundaries that are "not under our control."  She said it would be a good opportunity to "observe" them without taking on something else.  She said they had the Strategic Plan as well as other initiatives (not to mention the City's pre-k program) and that there could be "mission creep" to all this.

McLaren said she was in "alignment" with Peters and Peaslee.  She said she wants to develop a "positive philosophy" with charters but not become an authorizer.

Interesting how at least two directors could see that there is a third option to "blowing in the breeze" or becoming an authorizer.  The district can actively look at how the new charters play out - what charters might suggest or request from the district - and leave the door open for dialog.  Sounds like just as much a plan as the work-heavy authorizing route.

Then Blanford spoke up and went a bit off the rails.  He said they were elected to "serve the students of Seattle."  Then he stopped and said he wanted to rephrase, "who has accountability to voters for charter schools?"  The answer was - for those currently authorized within SPS boundaries - the Charter Commission.

He said he "chafed at 'us versus them' and that First Place is in his district and he feels ownership of the school whether it's part of the district or not.  He said he had a "record of being against charter schools but this has told me it's complicated."

I believe that he was trying to say that he felt a responsibility for ALL the school-aged children in Seattle which is noble but no, it's not his job as a board director.  His job IS the children enrolled in SPS and trying to make SPS as well-run and attractive to as many Seattle parents as he can.  But his first duty and loyalty should be to SPS students.

Director Patu said that charters are present but that, as Peaslee, Peters and McLaren had said, we have our own needs and responsibilities.  She said the district has already been neglecting areas and now is not the time to become authorizers.

Carr said she "opposed charter schools and supported the resolution against them."  But she thinks charters will impact the district whether or not the district becomes an authorizer.  She said they would not have "local control" and just have to "react" to new charters.

Not true.  Anyone can see who files to be a charter school - where they want to locate, number of students, focus, etc.

She said they will compete with charters for teachers and principals and levy dollars.  The first two, sure, but the law is already written on sharing levy dollars.  And speaking of, here was my other question for the Charter Commission:

Has Aileen (the SA assigned to the Charter Commision) addressed the issue of how districts that pass levies after a charter is open then pass that charter dollars from that levy?  Codd didn't know and I'm pretty sure the law is fairly vague on how it happens. 

We are working on this and hope to have some clarity to share with authorized schools in the next couple of months.
Many of us have asked - and gotten no reply - from the City on whether they will be sharing Family and Education dollars with charters. The charter law is somewhat vague so it is not clear if only school district levies are accessible to charters or any school levy.

(My thought on the school district levies is that districts would just count the number of schools in their district, including charters, and divide that into the levy dollars with each getting an equal share. If First Place Scholars survives - and they are certainly on the ropes - they and Summit Sierra would be the only charter schools to access BTA IV dollars as a charter has to be open for business before a levy passes.)

Carr finished by saying that we "eventually need to consider this but not now."

Codd conceded that it was "smart" for the Board and staff to continue the discussion. 

Blanford added that he hoped they would consider "student achievement and charters and outcomes." 


Clearly, the staff wanted to see at least a letter of intent go out.  That Nyland was so blase about saying "that was then and this is now" was quite enlightening. 

It is clear that most of the Board does need to read the Tacoma FAQs which are pretty good.  There is no use in discussion that is not clearly informed. 

The district does NOT need to become a charter authorizer to work with charters within its boundaries.  Again, I believe if charter applicants think that they don't have an equal chance with authorizers that they could go to the Board of Education and appeal to see this "gentlemen's agreement" disallowed.

It appears that the issue of charter schools is one more thing to add to the list to ask any perspective Board candidates. 


Anonymous said...

Perhaps Clover Codd et al are hoping to cash in on the charter $$ giveaway courtesy of the latest ESEA rewrite.


Po3 said...

How is it that out-of-towner charter companies can swoop in and secure entire buildings and SPS can't find seem to find a single square foot that isn't a portable?

Watching said...


Thank you for documenting this important meeting. This paragraph caught my eye:

".... President Carr rebuffed saying that was a conversation about growth boundaries and those were already approved."

Wasn't there an attempt to change the boundaries around Bailey Gatzert to increase the amount of FRL children that would attend the prek, which will be turned over to the city? Was there a boundary change? Some think that the city will use the prek program to bring charter schools into SPS.

There seemed to be a lot of attention focus on becoming a charter school authorizer which would allow a working relationship with the Charter Commission. Let's remember: The Chair of the Charter Commission is Steve Sundquist and he was the former President of SPS. Does one think that the former president of the school board and present chair of the charter commission would not want to work in conjunction with SPS- even without being an authorizer? I have to call BS on that argument.