Gates Setting the Foundation for Washington State's Charters

The Gates Foundation has always reserved a portion of its grant making activity for its home state, and since the election, the foundation has busied itself with activities to build the state's charter school infrastructure. Gates grants have started charter organizations, funded feasibility studies, provided technical assistance for charter startups, and supported other activities related to these new schools. State authorities are scheduled to approve the first wave of charter applicants in early 2014, with the first schools slated to open later that year.

If the experience of other states is any indication, the first 40 charters approved in Washington are only the beginning. As these schools grow in popularity, states often raise the cap to allow the creation of more schools. Texas, for example, began its charter school experiment in 1995 with a cohort of 20. Within five years, the cap more than quadrupled. This likely growth in the number of allowable charters, coupled with Gates' longstanding commitment to charter schools as laboratories of educational innovation, is sure to mean ample funding opportunities for organizations with new ideas for educating young people from Spokane to Seattle.

Because Washington's approval of charter schools comes some 20 years after the nation's first charters began, Gates and other advocates hope the new schools will draw on the experiences of charters in other states to avoid the missteps and mistakes of the past. For example, charter advocates have promised that these schools will expand the range of schooling options. That promise, however, has largely eluded children with learning disabilities and other special needs. New charters in Washington state should include in their proposals plans for providing full educational and support services for special education students.

It also is important to ensure that the new schools have sound business plans. A strong educational vision is not enough. Schools also must maintain buildings, hire and pay teachers, buy supplies, and exercise responsible use of public funds. So a charter organization needs skilled business people as well as educators with a vision. Financial mismanagement has been the downfall of many a charter.