Washington charter commission members say they focus on quality when reviewing proposals


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Sunnyside Charter School proponents Veronica Rivero Testamarck, left, Erin Martin, center, and Brittany Weaver, right, face the Washington State Charter School Commission and answer questions at a commission meeting in Yakima, Wash., Thursday, Oct. 9, 2014. The commission denied the application of the Sunnyside Charter School to start a school in Sunnyside, Wash. (AP Photo/Yakima Herald-Republic, Gordon King)

SEATTLE — It takes more than passion to start a charter school.

That's the message the chairman of the Washington Charter School Commission said he hopes people will get from the latest round of applications to start new schools in the state.

If passion was the only requirement, then the commission would have approved four new schools last week instead of one.

But each of the schools that did not win a charter had a deficit that led the commission to reject its application: financial issues, academic concerns and lack of community connections or support.

During a meeting last week in Yakima, some commissioners were so impressed by the passion of school organizers that they appeared poised to reconsider a proposal that had been reject by outside evaluators as not being ready.

But both the staff and volunteer leadership of the group expressed a desire to stay focused on quality.

"We've got a pretty strong conception of what quality looks like," said commission Chairman Steve Sundquist after last week's commission meeting in Yakima. "Our understanding of this is deepening all the time."

Voters in 2012 passed a charter school law focused on meeting the needs of at-risk children, with very specific requirements for proposals that get a charter.

During the discussion at the meeting about a proposed school for children with special needs who live in the communities surrounding Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Commissioner Larry Wright suggested the panel might want to consider giving The Village Academy a conditional approval.

But another commissioner reminded the group that they shouldn't be swayed by the passion of the organizers.

"I struggle with consistency. A group of passionate people just left," Commissioner Kevin Jacka reminded the group, referring to a different proposal for a school in Sunnyside in central Washington that did not win approval.

Proposals from both The Village Academy and the Sunnyside Charter Academy were rejected for a second time last Thursday. The third proposal rejected last week was for a bilingual school in the Vancouver area.

Commissioner Roberta Wilburn told the Village Academy group to not be discouraged by a second rejection by the statewide commission.

"There are things that are very, very strong, very, very exciting about what you're proposing," said Wilburn, who is associate dean of graduate studies in education and diversity initiatives at Whitworth University.

Other commissioners expressed the hope that both groups would keep trying.

The commission is working through its second round of charter-school approvals. In January, the first eight schools were approved: seven in Western Washington and one in Spokane. In September, another school was approved in Spokane, and last week another school was approved in Western Washington.

The state's first charter school opened this fall in Seattle. Eight are scheduled to open next fall, and the tenth one plans to open in fall 2016.

The next round of applications is expected to begin in February.

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