If turnout at a charter school conference held Saturday in Tacoma is any measure, there’s definitely some interest in the independently managed, publicly financed schools that were approved by voters in November.
An estimated 150 teachers, school administrators, parents and others from around the state came to the conference at the University of Washington Tacoma to learn about charters, which are public schools that permit significant decisions to be made at a school level, rather than by a school district or state officials.
Saturday’s audience included educators from the Tacoma, Sumner and Franklin Pierce school districts. But none of them wanted to talk publicly about their interest in charter schools. They say they are keenly aware of the strong opposition to charters that remains within the education community.
Much of that opposition surfaced during the campaign for the charter measure, Initiative 1240.
I-1240 passed by a slim margin statewide in November, with just over 50 percent of the vote. It garnered nearly 55 percent support from Pierce County voters, and just over 50 percent in Thurston County.
The initiative was opposed by the Washington Education Association, the union that represents teachers statewide. School boards, including the Tacoma School Board, took public stands against it. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn says the initiative is unconstitutional, and he promised to explore the possibility of a lawsuit to block the charter school law.
Saturday’s conference was organized by the Seattle-based Washington Charter School Resource Center, a group started by Jim and Fawn Spady. The couple sponsored the first state charter school ballot initiative in 1996 and have been working to make charters a reality in Washington ever since. Forty-one states already have charter schools.
Jim Spady said Saturday that charters are a way to give educators the freedom to create a school of their dreams, and parents the freedom to choose a school model that’s different from what their local school district offers. He said many charters around the country serve low-income and minority kids.
“Charter schools empower the powerless,” he said.
Charlie Hoff, a former member of the Federal Way School Board, said he believes charters are one way to engage parents in their children’s education. He said families choose charters.
“Nobody attends a charter school because they were assigned to it,” he said.
Attendees at Saturday’s conference also heard from charter operators from California, Oregon and elsewhere.
Nithya Rajan, director of strategic planning for California’s Green Dot Public Schools, said her nonprofit organization is considering expanding beyond the 18 charters it currently operates in Los Angeles. She said Washington offers one possibility.
If Green Dot were to start a charter here, she said, it would use a team made up of both Washington educators and people with Green Dot experience.
Keynote speaker Yvonne Chan is the founder of the Vaughn Next Century Learning Center in the Los Angeles Unified School District. She spoke about her experience launching the first so-called conversion charter school in the nation, in a high-poverty community. Conversions are charter schools that start out as traditional public schools. Under I-1240, conversion charters could happen in Washington, if a majority of teachers or parents at an existing public school sign a petition to initiate an application for charter status.
Chan said that charter schools, which began 20 years ago in the United States, no longer are an experiment. Rather, she said, they are a way for schools to achieve “increased autonomy — to get the handcuffs off teachers and parents.”
That’s a change that interested some in Saturday’s audience.
Calyn Holdaway, a Gig Harbor-area mom of three special-needs students, said she came to the conference to meet educators who might be interested in working with her to establish a charter school. She is setting up a nonprofit organization aimed at helping special-needs kids get the education they are entitled to.
“I know how to run a nonprofit,” she said. “I don’t know how to run a school.”
Under I-1240, charters could only be started by nonprofit organizations.
Two Puyallup parents with connections to a nonprofit were also at the conference to learn about charter schools.
Karen Edwards and Teena Van Blaricom were part of the Puyallup Family Co-op program at Firgrove Elementary, before the program was suspended by the Puyallup School District. The district said the co-op needed to overhaul admissions and other policies to make the program accessible to all families.
Edwards said she still wants to work with the school district to re-start the co-op.
But Van Blaricom said starting a charter school “might be an option” if that plan doesn’t work out.
Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635