Editorials

Tacoma’s charter school experiment is evolving, not imploding, through trial and error

Roquesia Williams and her children (from left to right) Gesiah, Gehariii, Genai and Gervais stand outside SOAR Academy in July 2015. Williams was a triple pioneer at the time, as she had a child at each of Tacoma’s three new charter schools that opened that year.
Roquesia Williams and her children (from left to right) Gesiah, Gehariii, Genai and Gervais stand outside SOAR Academy in July 2015. Williams was a triple pioneer at the time, as she had a child at each of Tacoma’s three new charter schools that opened that year. News Tribune file photo

The recent announcement that SOAR Academy will close at the end of the school year is a setback for our state’s school-choice movement. It’s lamentable for Tacoma, home to three charter schools — the most of any community in Washington. And it’s a blow for families of the 180 students enrolled at SOAR as of last fall.

But it also confirms something this Editorial Board understood about charter schools back in 2016, when the privately operated, publicly funded schools were getting off the ground in Washington.

Innovation requires experimentation, and new compounds cooked up in a laboratory don’t always hold together.

We called Tacoma a lab in the “bold experiment” of charter schools. We said “positive early results in Tacoma should give state lawmakers enough reason to keep the test labs open” and time to prove critics wrong.

Now it’s becoming clear some schools will succeed on their own merits, while others succumb to external forces. That’s why the state need not overregulate them, and why public school teacher unions need not overreact to the competition they present.

SOAR opened with noble aspirations in the Hilltop neighborhood in 2015, enrolling more than 75 percent of its students from low-income households. The school initially served students in kindergarten and first grade for whom traditional public school wasn’t a great fit, then added one grade level per year. It never reached its goal of a full K-8 campus.

On Jan. 24, with “heavy hearts,” SOAR’s board of directors announced the closure, saying “we have explored every possibility to keep our school open, but ultimately have been unable to identify the resources needed to continue delivering our fully inclusive model.”

This model of integrating special-education students into general-education classrooms is what made SOAR as attractive as it was unsustainable. “We don’t pull students out unless absolutely necessary,” school founder Kristina Bellamy told a TNT reporter in July 2015. “We push in.”

Consequently, SOAR’s percentage of students with disabilities topped 17 percent last May, compared to 15 percent in Tacoma Public Schools and 14 percent statewide.

How expensive is it to fully serve these students? Washington officials identified a $308-million special-ed gap they want to fill this year in traditional K-12 schools. How challenging is it to blend these children into mainstream classrooms? Washington ranks in the bottom eight among all states, according to a report by TNT staff writer James Drew.

SOAR was a worthwhile experiment to address those shortcomings on a modest scale.

The school’s impending closure brings a sad note to a mostly promising time for the charter movement, which Washington voters embraced by ballot initiative in 2012. A state Supreme Court ruling in October turned back a teachers union effort to block lottery funding for charter schools; that came three years after the court ruled that subsidizing the schools through the state general fund was unconstitutional.

A Stanford University study last month found Washington charter students have largely kept pace with their traditional school peers; some charter pupils, such as English language learners, are more proficient than their public school counterparts.Tacoma’s charters didn’t compare as well, and SOAR’s third-grade reading and math scores were 28 to 34 percentage points below their Tacoma Public Schools cohorts.

SOAR isn’t the first to drop out of the charter club, nor will it be the last. The state’s original charter school — First Place, of Seattle — switched back to private-school status in 2016.

But it would be a mistake to read too much into these examples. The bold school-choice experiment hasn’t imploded; it merely evolves.

Charter school educators, like anyone committed to the hard work of teaching, should appreciate the words of Thomas Edison, perhaps America’s greatest innovator. “I have not failed,” he once said. “I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

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