State charter school chief to step into education spotlight

Joshua Halsey is about to become one of the most important people in public education in Washington.

For a few more days he’ll manage the South King County Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Learning Network — a mouthful of jargon for a job guiding an $11 million program to improve achievement of 117,000 students with creative and cutting-edge instructional techniques.

On Oct. 7, he’ll begin work as the first executive director of the Washington State Charter School Commission in Olympia.

In this gig, he’ll be in the vanguard of a voter-driven effort to transform learning for the state’s 1 million public school students.

With passage of Initiative 1240 last year, Washington will be allowing private nonprofits to run schools with public funds. Up to 40 such alternative schools will be allowed to operate under contracts, known as charters, issued either by the commission or approved school districts.

No more than eight can be authorized in one year and applications from those seeking to be in the initial wave are due in late November.

Halsey, who will earn $100,000 a year, will be steering the nine-member commission as it sorts through applications this winter and decides next February which to authorize. His exact role is getting formulated but he said he expects to be an “active participant” in the decision-making.

“I would hope we would avoid experimentation sites,” he said. “What we really want is innovation sites.”

Halsey, who is married and a father of two young children, is an unfamiliar name for many veterans entrenched in the state’s education establishment. And Halsey, who declined to give his age, arrives as an almost complete unknown to those who waged battle on the charter school initiative as he steered clear of the fight.

This should give him an unsullied foundation on which to build relationships with those trumpeting the value of these alternative schools in helping students as well as those still trying to prevent any from opening because they consider them unconstitutional.

Commissioners chose him from a crowd of candidates which included some with experience doing a similar job in other states.

“You will find him to be a strong leader,” said Steve Sundquist, chairman of the Washington commission. “His unique mix of experience, curiosity, and empathy will serve us well as we work to create the strongest charter school network in the nation.”

He’ll also need to be adept in the political arena, a place he’s not been visible to this point in his career.

Once the first charter school opens — possibly in fall 2014 — the state and school districts will have five years in which to authorize the 40 allotted charters.

If the commission wants more it will need to convince the Legislature and governor to pass a law adjusting the cap.

Charter schools still remain largely disliked in parts of the state and among many state lawmakers. All it will take is one less than shiny operation to surface to imperil chances of getting rid of the cap.

Halsey said he is looking forward to successfully navigating those potentially choppy waters.

“I want to make sure we create the best charter schools in the nation,” he said. “That’s what I’m all about.”

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623 or jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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