Who pays the price for Tacoma’s failed charter schools? Kids do

Charter school skeptics just got an “I told you so” moment handed to them with a bright red bow.

Destiny Middle School is the second charter school in Tacoma to close at the end of this academic year. In January, Soar Academy announced it was calling it quits. Both Tacoma schools cited low enrollment and financial struggles.

Summit Olympus High School will be the only charter school left in Tacoma. So much for school choice.

In the 2019-20 school year, 10 charter schools will be up and running in the state; four have been authorized to open the following year. These publicly funded, privately-run schools would do well to take a forensic interest in what happened in Tacoma.

This editorial board once called charter schools a “bold experiment,” but even we need to remember that kids aren’t lab rats; when we experiment with schools, we experiment with kids’ futures. The stakes are high.

Joe Hailey, board chairman of Green Dot Public Schools Washington, the nonprofit charter that ran Destiny Middle School, told the News Tribune that lack of access to local levy funding meant a “permanent structural deficit for our schools.” In other words, with a large funding gap, Destiny Middle School was destined to fail.

Hailey is right. Without levy funding, charters compete with one hand tied behind their backs. If the paramount duty of the state is to educate every child, that’s not happening. Instead of being all-in on charter schools, we’re only half-in, and guess who suffers?

Charter schools, funded by state lottery money, may have won voter approval back in 2012 and celebrated a Supreme Court victory in 2018, but they’re left to perpetually defend themselves in the court of public approval.

Opponents -- the Washington Education Association being one of the loudest -- have launched lawsuits and a hostile public relations campaign against these voter-approved schools. To counter their claims, charters have to prove themselves by meeting higher benchmarks for success, and at least in Tacoma, that didn’t happen.

Third graders In Tacoma’s SOAR Academy had reading and math scores 28 to 34 percentage points lower than their Tacoma Public School cohorts, and now, due to the school’s closure, some of those students will have to go back into the local district and compete with students who may be miles ahead in terms of academic performance.

It remains to be seen if more charter schools will follow in Tacoma’s failed footsteps, but we do know that denying charters levy money won’t help them; it may even seal their fate.

Pouring public money into a privately run industry is always risky business. Unlike traditional school districts that are governed by elected school board members who live in the district and pay taxes there, charters can be run by a corporate office in another state, as is the case with Green Dot Public schools, the California-based nonprofit that ran Destiny Middle School.

It would be difficult to name an institution where accountability doesn’t help job performance. Government, business, healthcare, transportation, and infrastructure are all made better by higher scrutiny. If charters want more public money, they may have to give up more autonomy.

We hope critics take note of Tacoma’s one charter success story: Summit Olympus Public High School graduated its first class of seniors last week. Three years ago, these same students fought to keep their school going when it was deemed unconstitutional.

Each 2019 Olympus graduate was accepted into a four-year college, and each one learned what every kid should: A good education is worth fighting for.