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Updated Sunday, November 25, 2012 at 09:40 PM

As charter schools get going here, best-known charter chains may stay away

By Linda Shaw
Seattle Times education reporter

The first charter schools in Washington probably won't be run by the nation's best-known charter groups with years of experience and strong reputations.

During the successful campaign for Initiative 1240, which will allow as many as 40 charters to open here over five years, supporters talked about wanting Washington students to have a chance to attend the kind of schools operated by the nation's top charter operators.

But the highest profile chains are in such demand that most won't be looking to expand here anytime soon — if at all.

Instead, assuming the new law survives a legal challenge, Washington likely will start out with kitchen-table charters, cooked up by a teacher or principal or two with a passion to try something new.

The first charters also probably will not open until fall 2014, a year later than supporters initially hoped.

Some national charter-school experts say the wait-and-see stance of many big charter groups is not surprising.

First, there aren't that many of them — only nine operate in more than one state, said Greg Richmond, president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. Second, he said, they can afford to be picky.

"These guys are very much in demand all over the country," he said. "It's a seller's market."

The not-yet group includes the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), with 125 charter schools in 20 states. A spokesman said KIPP has no plans to expand beyond its current commitments.

YES Prep, which runs 11 charters in Houston and is looking to grow, says it won't look at Washington until 2015 at the earliest.

Rocketship Education, one of the hottest new chains out of California, says it will watch what happens before it decides whether to apply.

"I'm not sure we want to be first," said Kristoffer Haines, vice president of national expansion.

The one exception is Green Dot Public Schools, a Los Angeles chain that runs 18 middle- and high-school charters in low-income neighborhoods. CEO Marco Petruzzi says he needs to see how the regulations shape up, but the Seattle area is one of a handful of places where Green Dot is seriously considering opening new schools.

"We wouldn't be shy about being first," he said.

One factor that Green Dot and others will weigh is community support for charters. That's one area Washington might fall short. Initiative 1240 was approved here with just 51 percent of the vote, even though supporters spent $11 million to promote it.

"It was still a W in the win column," said Washington political consultant Christian Sinderman, but the closeness of the vote "weakened the enthusiasm and the mandate for charters."

The law's limit of 40 charters may also be an issue.

Rocketship, for example, wants to have at least eight schools in any area where it operates. Given the cap, Haines said that might be more than Washington would want from any one group.

Supporters says they hope groups like Rocketship will come here eventually, but for now, homegrown is fine.

"It's not the brand, it's what they do," said Chris Korsmo of the League of Education Voters, one of the organizations that led the pro-charter campaign. "I don't care who it is, I just want them to succeed."

Through a spokeswoman, Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft and the third-largest donor to the campaign, said he's just pleased that students in Washington will soon have more choices.

Legal challenge

The sponsors of Initiative 1240 also had hoped that the first charters could open this coming fall. That now looks unlikely, too.

A legal challenge may slow everything down. Randy Dorn, Washington's top education official, has said he will challenge the constitutionality of Initiative 1240 because his office would not oversee a new charter-school commission that will be formed to approve and monitor charters. Dorn hasn't yet decided when he will file suit.

Lawsuits aside, the state has to set up all the rules and regulations for charter applicants, whether they are veteran groups, rookies or existing public schools that, under the law, can apply to convert into charters.

The new commission will do much of that work, and it may not be appointed for months. Local school boards can apply to authorize charters, too, but no regulations yet exist for how they can do that.

The initiative also makes the state Board of Education responsible for establishing the due dates for charter applications, and when applications must be approved or denied. But the board doesn't yet have a timetable for setting that timetable.

As much as supporters would like to see the first school open soon, they say they don't want to sacrifice quality for speed.

The biggest mistake other states have made is opening too many charters too quickly, said Robin Lake, a longtime charter researcher who directs the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington.

"The most important thing is keeping the focus on quality," she said, "even if it means going a bit slower than some folks would like."

Lots of applicants

Whatever the timing, the state looks like it will have plenty of applicants, even if they are mostly rookies. I-1240 supporters say they've received about 100 calls from teachers and principals and others interested in running or helping start new charters.

"They're just coming out of the woodwork," Korsmo said.

Some have worked in charters in other states, she said. She declined to name anyone yet.

And despite the attraction of organizations that already have a track record, Lake and other charter-school experts say about three-quarters of the nation's charters are homegrown, and some of them do very well, too.

"Some of the best charter schools I know were started by a couple of renegade, fantastic teachers," Lake said.

Yet studies show that quality of charters across the nation vary, with just a small percent performing better than traditional public schools.

If the first charter applicants in Washington state are mostly new to the field, then the job of reviewing them will be more difficult, since they haven't run charters before.

Over time, Lake and others think a number of big-name groups will apply in Washington, too.

Initiative 1240 is a good charter law, they say, that, if carried out well, should attract big operators, as well as small ones.

"I think it will happen," said Jonathan Schorr, a partner at the nonprofit NewSchools Venture Fund, which supports many charter-school groups. "I just don't think it will happen in the blink of an eye."

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359

Charter-school timeline

Nov. 8-9, 2012 The State Board of Education began discussing how school boards can gain approval to open charter schools within their district's borders.

Late February/March 2013 Public hearing on the rules for how school boards can become charter authorizers.

By March 6 The nine members of a new charter-school commission must be appointed. The commission, along with any approved school districts, will review applications from prospective charter-school operators, decide which can open schools here, then monitor the performance of those schools.

By March 6: The State Board of Education must finalize rules for how school boards can apply to become charter-school authorizers.

Yet to be determined: The timeline for charter-school application and approval. The state Board of Education is responsible for setting that schedule, which the new state commission and any approved school boards must follow.

Earliest the first charter schools could open: Fall 2013

More likely opening time: Fall 2014


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