Education

Charter schools may join Eastern Washington school district

Greg Allman, carrying 2-year-old daughter Genevieve, walks in May 2014 with his son Liam, 5, to the SOAR Academy, one of three charter schools that opened this year in Tacoma. The school says it is looking into forming an affiliation with a public school in the state to remain open.
Greg Allman, carrying 2-year-old daughter Genevieve, walks in May 2014 with his son Liam, 5, to the SOAR Academy, one of three charter schools that opened this year in Tacoma. The school says it is looking into forming an affiliation with a public school in the state to remain open. Staff file, 2014

State charter schools, including three in Tacoma, may join an Eastern Washington school district as they continue to fight for survival in the wake of last summer’s state Supreme Court ruling declaring the school law unconstitutional.

The court decision is expected to go into effect Monday, at which point charter schools will no longer receive state money. They could continue to receive public funds, however, if they affiliate with a traditional publicly funded school district.

The Mary Walker School District in northeast Washington has expressed preliminary interest in being a charter school host.

Under state law, the charters potentially could join the district under the classification of Alternative Learning Experience. ALEs allow for off-campus instruction, with the schools reporting student progress to the district. A school district receives state money for students enrolled in an ALE program.

The Mary Walker district, located in the Stevens County town of Springdale, currently has about 500 students. The nine charter schools in the state have a combined estimated enrollment of 1,300 students.

“While several of our schools, including those in Tacoma, have been in contact with the Mary Walker School District, no formal agreements have been made,” Washington State Charter Schools Association spokeswoman Maggie Meyers said.

Mimi Jansen, office and outreach coordinator for SOAR Academy in Tacoma, confirmed that her school is looking at the option.

“We are still learning what it means,” Jansen said.

Jen Wickens, chief regional officer for Summit Public Schools, said her organization also had been in contact with Mary Walker, but no formal agreements were reached. Summit operates two charter high schools in Washington, one in Seattle and one in Tacoma.

“We are committed to keeping our doors open in a way that causes the least harm to students,” Wickens said.

Tacoma’s third charter school, Destiny Charter Middle School, could not be reached for comment Monday.

Meyers said other charters also are learning about this pathway as a potential temporary measure. It would allow charters to remain open while the state Legislature takes up the issue, as charter supporters are hoping it will.

“It would really just be a stopgap until legislation is passed,” she said. “The urgency is now on the Legislature.”

Meyers said charters statewide would need to become affiliated with some district as ALEs before the end of December.

“The most important factor is minimizing disruption for families and mitigating harm to students halfway through the school year,” she said. “These are public school families who deserve great local public schools.”

Charters would need to find a willing partner to affiliate with a school district.

Mary Walker district Superintendent Kevin Jacka served on the Washington State Charter School Commission until resigning Dec. 2.

Jacka said in an email that the “Mary Walker School District is still exploring opportunities” around hosting charter schools. The school board passed a resolution Nov. 30 allowing Jacka to explore the feasibility of hosting charters as ALE programs. Part of the resolution read, “the District believes that all students should have a choice in their educational program.”

Spokane is another district that has looked favorably on charters. Spokane Public Schools supported the creation of charter schools from the very beginning, said chief academic officer Steven Gering. The district is a charter school authorizer, meaning that Spokane’s two charter schools presented their school plans to the district prior to opening, although they remained financially independent.

In contrast, the Tacoma School Board has been an outspoken opponent of charters.

State voters passed the charter school initiative with a 50.7 percent approval rate in 2012, making Washington the 42nd state to approve charter schools.

On Sept. 4, just weeks after eight of the schools opened this year, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that charter schools, privately run and publicly funded, are unconstitutional and cannot receive public money.

The Washington state attorney general asked the court to reconsider that ruling, but on Nov. 19 the court upheld most of it.

News Tribune staff writer Debbie Cafazzo contributed to this report

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