Tacoma charter families rally to save their schools

If energy and enthusiasm alone could rescue the state’s charter schools from legal limbo, Tacoma families who rallied in support of the city’s three charters Thursday night could stop worrying.

To chants of “Save our schools!,” at least 450 kids, parents and charter supporters gathered at Destiny Charter Middle School in the Dometop neighborhood. They pushed back against last week’s state Supreme Court ruling that struck down Washington’s 2012 voter-approved charter law.

Justices said the law violates the Washington Constitution because charter schools are not “common schools” governed by locally elected school boards. Charter boards are instead appointed by the nonprofit organizations that run the schools.

Natasha Lemke, whose first-grade daughter started at Tacoma charter SOAR Academy in August, called the court ruling unfair. She criticized the court for framing the question of charters around funding when “it’s supposed to be about children and education.”

She said she received a letter from her daughter’s previous Tacoma public school, saying it was classified under federal rules as a failing school. At SOAR, she said, her daughter was tested and is now receiving advanced instruction.

“She loves it,” Lemke said. “She comes home and tells me what she did in dance class.”

Rallygoers were urged to text political leaders, write letters to newspapers, and post photos and comments online about how the ruling is affecting their children.

Charter supporters plan to ask the court to reconsider its ruling. Barring that, they hope state lawmakers will provide a statutory remedy that would keep the schools running.

Meanwhile, the Washington State Charter Schools Association, an organization that supports and advocates for Washington’s new charters, has vowed to keep all nine of the state’s charter schools open for the current school year through grants and private donations.

Nouansy Wilton of DuPont has two children in Tacoma charters: her daughter Katie is at Summit Olympus High School, and her daughter Sarah is at Destiny.

Wilton said her military family chose charters because they had a good experience with charters in San Antonio, where they lived before getting transferred to Washington.

“The level of teaching was phenomenal,” Wilton said.

Daughter Katie said that at Summit, teachers focus on each student’s personal needs.

“They really want students to succeed,” she said.

Parents at the rally heard from two local state legislators: Sen. Bruce Dammeier and Rep. Hans Zeiger, both Republicans from Puyallup.

“I will tell you without question that I am as frustrated as you or more with the recent ruling by our Supreme Court,” Dammeier told the crowd. “I think it is technically flawed.”

He criticized the court for issuing its ruling the Friday before Labor Day, when charters had already been in session for several weeks.

He urged families to keep up their lobbying efforts.

“We need to get the attention of the Supreme Court, we need to get the attention of the governor, we need to get the attention of the Legislature, we need to get the attention of the citizens of the state of Washington,” he added.

Dammeier said he’s confident a bipartisan solution can be found to keep Washington’s nine charters open.

Zeiger said the court made an “arbitrary ruling that disregards the will of the voters.”

Jessica Garcia, whose daughter Isadora started this year at Destiny, told the story of how her older son was the victim of a violent attack at another Tacoma school. She said the situation was serious enough to involve police, and left her son traumatized.

After exhausting public school options and resources without success, she said, the family explored private schools. But she said they could not admit her son due to his disability.

“We were forced out of our existing school district,” Garcia said. “I was forced to sign over educational guardianship to my mother in Puyallup just so my son had a safe place to learn. As a parent, I felt like an utter failure.”

When it was time for her daughter to attend middle school, she said, she wanted a different option.

“This is first time I haven’t been full of anxiety when my child goes to school for the day,” she said. “I feel hopeful for her education. She’s hopeful for her future. You can’t put a price on hope.”

Gina Wickstead, principal at Summit Olympus High School, told rallygoers that just an hour before last week’s court ruling, kids at the school had adopted their new mascot. Students chose the phoenix, a mythical bird that rises from the ashes of destructive fire.

She sees it as symbolic of the situation charter schools now find themselves in.

“We will rise above this,” Wickstead vowed.