Six Washington charter schools get a second start

Dancers from SOAR Academy prepare for their showcase performance that took place Tuesday. Dance is part of the curriculum at the Tacoma charter school. Left to right: Richard Flowers III, Illiana Enriquez, Henry Cray.
Dancers from SOAR Academy prepare for their showcase performance that took place Tuesday. Dance is part of the curriculum at the Tacoma charter school. Left to right: Richard Flowers III, Illiana Enriquez, Henry Cray. Courtesy

Six of Washington’s charter schools will get another lease on life under the state’s new charter law, after action by the Washington State Charter School Commission.

The commission, meeting in Tacoma last week, voted to approve five-year contracts with existing charter schools in Tacoma, Seattle and Kent.

Contracts are to be signed by the commission chairman, Steve Sundquist, and representatives of the schools by June 2.

Two other charters operate under the auspices of the Spokane School District. A former Seattle charter, First Place Scholars, has reverted to the private-school status it held before it converted to a charter school.

The commission also authorized three schools — two in Seattle and one in Walla Walla — that plan to open in fall 2017.

Charters — including SOAR Academy, Green Dot Destiny Middle School and Summit Olympus High School, all in Tacoma — survived a bumpy 2015-16 school year.

“We in the charter sector in Washington have just come through eight months of tumult,” Thelma Jackson, who heads the SOAR board, told the charter commission last week.

She urged the commission to guide discussions among the state’s fledgling charters, so that they can learn from last year’s challenges.

In September, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that a voter-approved charter school law was unconstitutional. By November, the schools had lost state per-pupil funding that had been available under the charter law.

Some of them — including SOAR and Destiny — regrouped under the banner of a small Eastern Washington school district. That allowed them to temporarily receive reduced state per-pupil funding as an alternative learning experience programs.

Summit Olympus, along with its sister school in Seattle, Summit Sierra, bypassed alternative learning funding and instead kept the doors open as homeschool centers for their students.

Private dollars filled in some of the funding gaps.

The Washington State Charter Schools Association gathered private donations and awarded $4.5 million in “bridge” grants to help schools through the rocky first school year.

The association earlier committed $2 million to help kick start several of the schools during their first year as they bought equipment and supplies.

For the coming school year, the association has committed to $1,000 per student at SOAR and other so-called stand-alone charters — those managed by individual operators, rather than by interstate networks such as Summit and Green Dot. Both organizations are based in California.

By March, the Legislature — heavily lobbied by charter supporters — passed a new charter law that kept much of the system intact but changed the source of charter school funding.

Instead of drawing money from the state common school fund, the law directs that money for charters come from state lottery proceeds.

And in a win for public school districts that opposed charters, the law also bars charters from accessing local levy dollars — a practice that would have been allowed had the Supreme Court not acted.

“The loss of local levy money is severe,” said charter commission director Joshua Halsey, who estimated the revenue reduction for the six schools at $17 million.

Charter opponents — including the teachers union, the Washington Education Association — contend changes in the charter law aren’t enough to meet constitutional demands. They have vowed to challenge charters in court again.

Opponents have raised concerns over charter governance. Rather than elected school boards, charters in Washington are run by boards appointed by the nonprofit organizations that manage the charter schools. The new law leaves that structure in place.

Melissa Westbrook, a Seattle public schools activist and blogger, told the charter commission at its Tacoma meeting that the new law does not meet constitutional requirements for the role of the state superintendent.

She also noted the law requires that parents be notified of pending litigation that could shut down charters.

Charter parent Jessica Garcia was at the Tacoma meeting and said she knew of the legal challenge to the charter school law.

“I went into it with my eyes open,” said Garcia, who has a child at Green Dot Destiny Middle School. “We were desperate enough to take this chance.”

Garcia spent much of the legislative session in Olympia, pushing for the new charter law. Her experience inspired her to run for a state House seat. She filed as a Republican in the 29th Legislative District, seeking to unseat incumbent Democrat Steve Kirby.

The new law expanded the charter commission. It now includes one member appointed by the State Board of Education, Jack Archer, and one representing the state superintendent’s office, Dan Grimm. Legislators are to appoint two more by July.

In approving the new five-year charter contracts, the commission also set some conditions. One was aimed at Summit Public Schools of Washington, which operates high schools in Tacoma and Seattle.

Commission staff members noted that the school has only two members remaining on its Washington board — one from Seattle and one from Bellevue. Summit’s bylaws state that its Washington-based board will include at least three members.

Commissioners made approval of Summit’s contract for the coming school year contingent on adding a board member.

“We are in the process of adding members,” said Jen Wickens, chief regional officer for Summit Public Schools Washington. “We will certainly have at least one more member by the time we need to execute contracts next week.”

The new charter law imposed additional requirements on charter board members. They now must file personal financial statements with the state Public Disclosure Commission.

Commission member Cindi Williams speculated that some board members at the schools might have felt uncomfortable with the financial disclosure requirements and bowed out.