Preserving charter schools great news for Tacoma

Students and faculty mingle and chat in a hallway before the start of a graduation ceremony at Destiny Charter Middle School in Tacoma.
Students and faculty mingle and chat in a hallway before the start of a graduation ceremony at Destiny Charter Middle School in Tacoma. News Tribune file photo, 2018

Last month the Washington state Supreme Court upheld the state’s lottery-supported charter school system. It was the high court’s second ruling in three years on the constitutional question of paying for the publicly funded, privately operated schools, and we fear not the last.

For now, the 3,400 students receiving a charter school education in Washington — including nearly 600 in Tacoma — were given another reprieve, similar to one granted by the Legislature in 2016. Lawmakers made lottery revenue available when monies from the general fund were deemed constitutionally off limits.

The court’s recent 6-3 ruling was great news based on sound reasoning, but it doesn’t mean charter school foes will fade away. The coalition largely made up of teachers unions and some civil rights groups has spent decades and millions of dollars trying to halt the proliferation of charters in Washington and elsewhere. They won’t go quietly.

Their arguments were worth the court’s close examination. While it’s true charter schools don’t use local levy money and thus don’t require local oversight, they’re still subject to state scrutiny.

And there are critics in high places. State school Superintendent Chris Reykdal, for one, is not a fan; he recently told The Seattle Times, “I have never believed (charter schools) are public, and I still don’t believe they are.”

As part of the 11-member board that oversees the state’s charter school system, Reykdal is responsible for making sure the schools meet state metrics.

But the accountability piece for charter schools is not missing, it’s just different from the local school board model we’re accustomed to. As Justice Mary Yu wrote in her lead opinion: “Charter schools are not rendered unconstitutional just because they do not operate identically to common schools.”

Yu succinctly gave three reasons why charters comport with state law: They are free and open to all students, they employ certified teachers and they meet public school instruction requirements.

And let’s not forget, they are the will of the people. In 2012, Washington voters approved charter schools on the promise that kids would have a viable, tuition-free alternative to public schools. We have no reason to believe those sentiments have changed.

Two months after the South Sound’s two largest school districts, Tacoma and Puyallup, were paralyzed by a teacher strike, who could blame families if they want to keep their options open?

And depending on what happens in Tuesday’s election, when Bethel School District tries to pass a bond in its fourth try in less than three years, who could blame students if they give up hope of attending class in safe, well-equipped public school buildings?

Evidence has yet to surface supporting the fearful scenarios floated by charter school opponents, of faceless corporations silencing local voices and siphoning public money from students who need it.

In fact, a University of Washington study last summer found that the state’s 12 charter schools are serving students with disabilities at a substantially higher rate than the national average.

So far, communities dotted with a franchise system of “McSchools” haven’t materialized, in part because the 2016 Legislature wisely capped the number of charter schools at 40.

For now, lottery funds are enough to keep the state’s current charters open — a 13th campus is scheduled to open in Skyline next fall — but we anticipate the money will get tighter as the state approaches charter school funding capacity, at which time other challenges may emerge.

Until then, we have our own local success stories to reference.

Tacoma is home to three charter campuses — the only Washington community with charters covering the full K-12 spectrum — and each demonstrates what their nonprofit operators do best: offer choice and create a culture of achievement.

SOAR Academy is an elementary school that focuses on “strategic arts integration;” Destiny Middle School emphasizes leadership skills; and Summit Olympus High School boasts of “self-directed learning.”

There’s no sector of society where choice and competition don’t provide an impetus for higher quality. Why should schools be different? Certainly the trifecta of Tacoma charters hasn’t impeded the strides of Tacoma Public Schools, whose graduation rates are on an upward trajectory.

While we understand critics won’t go away, charter schools are settled law, and we champion a system that broadens educational opportunities for all Washington kids.