More Gates dollars aim to bring charter schools to state

SEATTLE — With the opening of Washington’s first charter school likely 15 months away, more dollars from Seattle’s tech economy are flowing toward groups that want to change the way the state thinks about public schools.

In November, Washington became the 42nd state to allow the independent public schools. The initiative campaign succeeded in part because of money from Seattle’s tech economy — Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates donated $3 million, outside his charitable foundation, first for the signature gathering effort and later to promote the initiative. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen donated $1.5 million.

The voter-approved plan would open as many as 40 charter schools over five years.

The Bill &Melinda Gates Foundation has now pledged nearly $800,000 to start a new charter school incubator to give charter schools extra help with start-up planning . Run by the League of Education Voters, the Charter Schools Association will begin by helping groups that want to start a charter school write their application.

Eventually the group also hopes provide leadership training and advocate for charter schools in Washington state government, said Chris Korsmo, CEO of the League of Education Voters. Charter school incubators like this new Washington group are common in other states where the schools are gaining a foothold, experts say.

The Gates money was a start-up grant to get the organization going, but Korsmo expects the organization will get money from other sources, including out-of-state foundations.

Opponents of charter schools say they have a mixed track record in other states and there are no guarantees that the ones that open here would be successful. They also worry that charters will take money away from regular public schools.

But those in favor of the independent public schools say they can do things like help minority and low-income students improve their learning, close the achievement gap and head to college.

Daphne Moore of the Walton Family Foundation said her Bentonville, Ark, organization is paying close attention to what is happening in Washington state, but won’t make any grants until the beginning of next year.

“We work with a number of different groups to support the development of high quality charters,” Moore said. “It’s all about giving parents high quality choices.”

Representatives of the Gates Foundation said they are interested in Washington’s new charter incubator as part of the foundation’s national goal to support public schools. In the past few years, Gates has supported similar charter support groups in Connecticut, Louisiana, New York, Ohio, Texas and Colorado.

“Charters are one significant tool we’re trying to use in Washington state,” said David Bley, director of the foundation’s Pacific Northwest work.

Some of the foundation’s other education efforts in the state include helping schools adopt the new national academic standards and supporting colleges to improve their graduation rates.

Concerning charters, foundation staff is helping in Washington in a few other ways, Bley said. They’ve offered advice and made connections for the Charter School Commission and the State Board of Education.

“The school year starting 2014 is not so far away,” he said, concerning the date when most people expect Washington’s first charter schools to open. “It will take some time to get this done right.” Bley added.

Korsmo said the League of Education Voters wants to make the most impact it can by helping people who are focused on serving kids who haven’t been served well in regular public schools.

In addition to helping them set their academic plans, find a facility, find a staff and train them, and comply with both federal and state laws, the association would like to see the new schools collaborate.

The association also would like to see school districts and charter schools work together to learn from each other and help as many kids as possible.

“There’s more interest and willingness to step out of the traditional box,” she said of the districts that work closely with charter schools.

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