Climbing Towards Quality in Washington State

This post was written by Alex Medler and was originally posted on the Chartering Quality blog.

It may still be cold and drizzly in Washington this time of year, but that doesn’t seem to have stopped everybody from rolling up their sleeves. That is good, because as people launch a charter sector, there is a great deal of important work to do in the next few months.

I was making the rounds this week to meet with many of the key stakeholders in Washington’s new charter effort. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) works with the entities that grant charters (a.k.a. authorizers). We have established standards of quality charter school authorizing, which we use to help all authorizers that want to implement strong practices. That includes independent charter boards like Washington’s new commission as well as school districts. The standards that NACSA promotes address all the issues that come up during the life-cycle of charter schools. They are designed to ensure that strong charter applications are approved, while weak applicants — that are unlikely to succeed — are denied.

Washington’s law explicitly references NACSA’s national standards for authorizer practices, and it charges the state commission and school districts that want to serve as authorizers with implementing these strong practices. That is a great start in policy, and it looks like people are now gearing up to do just that.

Washington has experienced a long and bitterly-contested political struggle to pass a charter school law. After a fight like that, there can be lingering animosity and distrust. But hopefully people on both sides will get past those feelings and focus on the current challenge, which is to figure out how to do the technical work of creating a rigorous charter school system. Fortunately, there should be common ground when it comes to the next phase. Those who had been opposed to passing the law certainly do not want bad charters to be approved, and those behind the initiative are just as interested in making sure the charter that open are high quality schools. The best option for all parties at this stage, regardless of their previous work, is to no longer treat this as a political exercise.

My conversations with people throughout the system, from all sorts of perspectives, were all appropriately focused on how to do this work. The time-frames of the initiative require people to put systems in place very quickly. There is no time for the initiative’s backers to gloat or its opponents to sulk. The State Board is moving ahead with a host of necessary rules. They are preparing to review district’s applications to serve as authorizers, and establishing parameters for the calendar and funding authorizers’ work. If anyone drags their feet on putting rigorous systems in place, and the state and districts move ahead unprepared when the first charter applications arrive, the most likely outcome is the inappropriate approval of weak applications that will become bad schools.

The Commissioners themselves have been appointed, and they will be meeting in early April to begin their own work. Those interested in helping people who want to pen their own schools are networking nationally to identify the best practices and the most important resources that can help. And to a person, people were focused on how to do this right.

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