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Charting a new course for Washington public schools

The charter school movement was a focal point for one of the larger sessions at this week’s Solutions Summit, which attracted about 300 participants in total. Cindi Williams (R) of the Washington State Charter School Commission addresses misconceptions about the charter movement. Dr. Shelley Redinger (L) is superintendent of Spokane Public Schools and during the discussion shared successes she has experienced with charter schools.

Photo by John Fannin.
The charter school movement was a focal point for one of the larger sessions at this week’s Solutions Summit, which attracted about 300 participants in total. Cindi Williams (R) of the Washington State Charter School Commission addresses misconceptions about the charter movement. Dr. Shelley Redinger (L) is superintendent of Spokane Public Schools and during the discussion shared successes she has experienced with charter schools.

PASCO – “To have been in a charter school is to believe in a charter school,” says Dr. Shelley Redinger, superintendent of Spokane Public Schools.

Redinger’s district was the first in this state to adopt the option for charter schools – in keeping with a voter-approved state referendum - and this past Tuesday she addressed the benefits of charter schools during the Solutions Summit held in Pasco.

One of two main morning sessions featured by the Washington Policy Institute, the discussion on charter schools also aimed to clear up misconceptions about the schools.

Cindi Williams serves on the state’s nine-member charter school commission and she noted the schools are public schools, not affiliated with religious organziations and free to the public.

She also dispelled concerns that charter schools would deplete other schools of the best and brightest students.

“They must serve at-risk students, they can’t focus on cream of the cream of the crop,” Williams said of charter schools, which she notes often have to use a lottery system to select students due to demand. She said nationwide there is a waiting list of one million students seeking to attend charter schools.

Williams says Washington is relatively late to the charter school movement – Idaho and Oregon already have them - compared to the rest of the U.S.

But that’s actually a good thing, she notes.

“It’s good that we’ve lagged behind,” Williams says. “It’s an opportunity to learn from other charters.”

Williams and the rest of the commission has the task of selecting up to eight charter schools that will start classes as early as fall 2014. She says there are 28 applications submitted so far.

She says the focus of which applications to approve will be “…serving low-income communities with no choices.”

The application process is detailed, and charter candidates have to cover everything from curriculum and discipline policies to finance and details of the school day.

“It’s one of the most rigorous application processes,” Williams said. “These schools have to be great. A charter school at its best is a culture of academic rigor and high expectations. It proves all students can learn.”

Redinger, a Spokane native, says superintendents from other school districts questioned the wisdom of her district moving forward as the first in Washington to embrace charter schools.

“Why not pursue it?” she said, adding that her experience as superintendent for the Oregon Trail School District reflected better student performance after bringing in a charter school.

She said the entire school district’s mindset improved, including among staff.

“From my Oregon experience I saw that districts not pursuing charter schools had division in the community,” she said. “It raised the bar for the entire district.”

With charter schools now planned for the Spokane School District, Redinger says the bar is raised there as well.

“We’re moving the finish line,” she says of no longer looking just to high school graduation rates. “We’re basing success on how many students complete a two or four-year (college) program.”

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