At last Thursday's Charter Commission meeting, the Commission approved two new charters. (Between Spokane School District and the Commission, there were a total of two approved this year. The law allows eight a year and any spots not used in a year will then roll over into following years.
One charter was Willow Public (Charter) School in Walla Walla, due to open in fall 2016. It's a middle school that appears to be home-grown (but is supported by the Washington State Charter Schools Association which is largely funded by the Gates Foundation).
It is becoming more and more apparent that if you don't have the Gates Foundation stamp of approval via the Washington State Charter School Association (i.e. dollars to make the heavy lift to become a charter school in Washington state), you are unlikely to succeed (see First Place Scholars - more on this in a minute). Hilariously? Sadly? Willow can't even get the name of this org right, calling it "Washington Charter Association." As well, their website has very little real information about the school itself.
The other charter was the third in the Summit series (following Summit Olympus which is in Tacoma, not Olympia as it name might indicate and Summit Sierra in the ID, both of which are opening in fall 2015). Both of those are high schools while the newest Summit School, West Seattle, is grades 6-12 and will open in fall 2016. (It is unclear to me if Summit West Seattle is its final name.)
The first thing that was odd (and this is from the Charter Commission staff itself) is that the only person who showed up to speak publicly at the meeting was...me. The CC staff had sent out an e-mail, explaining how speaker would be chosen via lottery ticket, expecting a crowd but no one showed up. Not a single parent or citizen for either school, just their leaders.
The questioning of school officials from Willow versus Summit could not have been more different.
Willow was asked about finding teachers and their leader said that they had been inundated with letters of interest. He also talked about helping at-risk kids especially around students whose parents may work or be incarcerated at Walla Walla state prison.
On the other hand, Summit came with a very slick team of people who clearly thought that the CC, based on the approval of the other two Summit schools, was simply going to roll for the the third.
They were wrong. And, they overplayed their hand to not great effect.
To whit, there are two glaring issues for the CC.
One is that the entire board, overseeing three schools and hundreds of students, is three people. It was noted by the CC that these three people seem qualified BUT they are three people and the CC has concerns over their ability to oversee that many students.
The second is that Summit's charter language is such that there is a California board that oversees ALL Summit schools (in California and Washington) and can overrule that three-person board here in Washington State. You can see the dilemma that Yakima CC Raymond Navarro, Jr. pointed out - who is in control of the Summit schools in Washington State and who is accountable to the Charter Commission?
The Summit team launched into full ed jargon, talking about "certain synergies" and that our "corporate headquarters, for lack of a better term" has a voice in that "but to your point" that "Washington specifically has pulled themselves out of that and have our own standing board meetings." It's "autonomous collaboration."
Well, it's something.
The question was NOT if the Washington Summit board will have their own board meetings. The question was what is the role of the California Board, given the workings of their charter group.
Navarro, a soft-spoken man (and interestingly, most of the CC members are soft-spoken people), pressed on. Could the California Board overturn a decision of the Summit Washington Board?
The answer was somewhat surprising. Mr. Navarro had couched his question in an apology for asking it and the Summit team, graciously, said it was okay that he asked. (I'm sure he was very grateful for their latitude.) They then went on a jaunt about how Summit is accountable "to all its students and we want to make sure we don't go rogue with their name."
Well, that's something as well.
They continued on, saying, that the Washington Board will deal with problems BEFORE they happen and that the California Board is "uber-effective" and "keeps them honest." They also welcomed the CC members to attend board meetings. Again, I'm sure the CC was very happy for the invitation.
But then they got to the vote. Commissioner Millines Dziko read the question before the Commission but said that she wanted some "conditions." She was seemingly not happy about the answers given on this issue. She was careful in saying that, of course, there should be a solution.
The Summit team said they are very "collaborative" and "all voices are heard in Summit schools." (I'll remember that was said for future reference.)
The Summit director tried to deflect by saying, "Does the principal control a school or the School Board?" Alas, he forgot that real public schools are overseen by an elected school board that hires its superintendent to oversee principals.
Then Commissioner Millines Dziko asked an interesting question about how if schools are on the border between districts, can they access levy dollars from two districts? (I personally don't think that is possible - you'd have to be right on the line.) The question never got answered. (But the agenda reflected a discussion over WHEN charters can be eligible for school district levies funds. Like other parts of the law, this is vague and refers to when a charter "starts." Is that approval? Opening their doors?
Summit again tried to deflect and said that we will be "evangelists for our mission" and it was further noted that they are already working to establish partnerships with UW and SU.
Commissioner McGuire - on the College of Ed faculty at SU - said that was news to her (and possibly her colleagues didn't tell her because of her role on the CC but it does seem odd she didn't know).
Summit then spoke to the attrition rate that I had brought up in my testimony. (I pointed out two things about Summit's claim to parents and community that 99% of their seniors are accepted to four-year colleges/universities. One, that if Summit is making this claim publicly, then that should be included in their accountability rubric. Two, that it is important to consider - no matter what entity makes this claim - to look at the attrition rate from the freshman class to senior class. Or, in Summit's case, from 6th grade. They claim that their freshman rate to senior class is 93% but presented no evidence of that.)
Millines Dziko went on about her "conditions." She said Summit had a good model but there were "challenges" with their governance. She said, "I was not convinced" and that "when push comes to shove, I'm not convinced if big decisions are ones you make on your own."
President Sundquist demurred, saying they probably could not amend the charter in "real time." Millines Dziko stated that she knew they previously approved Summit schools but "the realization is setting in." President Sundquist said this was an issue as well with Green Dot charters.
Millines Dziko said she was willing to vote yes but then looked squarely at the Summit team and said that the Commission was watching over the Washington state students in charters schools very carefully. She said "Success in California isn't success here." She worried about other CMOs coming in with more charters and Summit said they were happy with three (again, another statement to put on the record for future reference).
Navarro stated his concern about "whose hand are we shaking?" meaning, California or Washington?
Millines Dziko then went on to tell the Summit Board that she attended the community meeting in West Seattle and was dismayed over the issue of giving out tickets and then Summit staff sorting them for whom they wanted to speak. She said they had a good track record and shouldn't need to resort to those kinds of tactics that "create doubt."
Sundquist rushed to say that he wanted charter schools to know that Washington state is "open for business" to charters, both home-grown and from CMOs.
Navarro said he would vote yes on the premise that Summit had signed an agreement that included operating under the WA State RCW. (I think that will be an interesting dilemma should the CA parent company want to do something different from what WA parents want.)
And then, in a final grace note, the very smart and wise CC director, Joshua Halsey, said that it is important that charter school applicants answer questions very clearly, even hypothetical ones. He said that the CC has to do due diligence and that charter applicants have to think thru all possibilities even if none have happened previously. He said they needed charter applicants to "walk them thru that" and "take the veil back and be transparent."
The Charter Commission also had on its agenda to review Mr. Halsey's work and I told Sundquist to please keep someone who is so clearly committed to best outcomes for the state of Washington and its students. He said they very much wanted to do so.
Two side reports.
SOAR Academy in Tacoma has real issues, according to Halsey, before their opening this week. I'm going to check in with him to see if all of them, including Sped and health/safety issues, have been addressed.
As well, First Place Charters is behind on the enrollment they need to successfully open. (They are at about 90 students and really need 120.)
Another issue is that they had projected an enrollment last year that did not come and have to repay OSPI for money they apparently spent despite not having that enrollment. OSPI does not want to bankrupt them for repayment but it's a real issue about how that will happen.
I pointed out in my public testimony that another speaker, at last month's meeting about FPS, noted the absence of anyone who had supported the charter law. I asked - where was the Washington State Charter School Association or the Gates Foundation? None of them showed up to support FPS which is the poster child for what the charter law was supposed to represent.
Lastly, Halsey stated that the CC was running a modest surplus but that the State put that surplus in an account that is not easily accessible.
For the Legislature, I guess fully funding education is just not a priority, no matter what types of public school there are.