Charter school families and students fight to keep the doors open
Photo: Joshua Huston
Precious Grant, whose son is a first-grader at First Place Scholars, is just one of the many parents willing to fight to keep charter schools open. “My 6-year-old son has specialized needs, and putting him in public school will not work for us. The charter schools work with kids who need extra help and take the time out to care for them without judgment,” she says. “You can’t get that from a public school. There are so many parents who benefit from this help, and to spring this ruling up on us is very unfair.”
While families of Seattle Public Schools’ 53,000 students were focused on September’s strike and contract bargaining news, families and supporters of Washington’s charter schools were holding statewide rallies to attract support for their schools, rallying against the Washington Supreme Court ruling that charter schools are unconstitutional.
Among those fighting the ruling are the parents, faculty and approximately 1,200 students of Washington’s nine charter schools. Seattle’s First Place Scholars, the first of the state’s charters to become operational in the fall of 2014, had previously operated as a tuition-free private school for Seattle’s homeless students and a wrap-around service, serving the needs of kids and families who had suffered homelessness, trauma or were at risk for any number of developmental or environmental factors. A year later, six more schools in western Washington opened their doors amid the chaos of the ruling.
Stefania Appia, a kindergarten teacher at First Place Scholars, describes how family concerns were managed after the ruling. “We informed them that public charters meet the same accountability measures and high standards that traditional public schools do, and we made it clear that the Court did not make their ruling based on the quality or performance of public charter schools,” she says. “We gave them numerous ways they can get involved and lend their support. Most importantly, we educated our parents as to the precedent that the decision was based on, and explained that the charter law, which was passed by Washington voters, is one of the strongest in the nation.”
The charter initiative had been rejected by Washington voters in 1996, 2000 and 2004, but the 2012 initiative — Initiative 1240 — received 241,153 valid signatures and some help from Bill Gates before it landed on the ballot. Voters approved I-1240 in November 2012; two months later, the State Board of Education began forming the rules for establishing and operating a charter school in the state.
Initiative 1240 had naysayers, though, and in July of 2013, the League of Women Voters of Washington filed a lawsuit arguing that charter schools were an “unconstitutional act,” based on the idea that they were taking funds away from public schools.
Almost three years and nine operating charter schools later, the question is “Why now?” While the timing of the ruling coincided with the beginning of the school year, the courts have been deliberating for a year.
It’s unclear whether or not Washington’s charter schools will remain open, or how they will be funded. Appia says that First Place will remain open, and their funding options are clear. “Yes, we will be open for the school year. Currently, none of us have any plans on closing this year based on the decision,” she says. “If the charter is revoked permanently, we will go back to operating as a private school and having to rely only on private donations and fundraising.”
Funding is a sticking point for charter school opposition groups. No on 1240 is just one of many groups that have been vocal and diligent in their opposition of Washington’s charter schools. Their Facebook page has almost 3,000 likes and regularly receives thumbs-ups for its anti-charter posts. Another public school advocate, Seattle Education 2010, states on their blog, “The intention of public schools was to ensure that all children received an education that would be the foundation for a productive future. The funding for education would be provided using taxpayer dollars, and schools would be run in a democratic and transparent manner. None of the above applies to charter schools.”
Appia contends that charter schools have already begun to address some of the problems of public schools: “Our small class sizes, along with staff trained to handle a variety of students’ needs, allow our students access to a quality education that they were not receiving prior to the public charter option being available.”
Despite the controversy surrounding charter schools, parents and students are not willing to let them go. Grant laments, “We receive so much support from the charter schools. Take them away, and you’ll also be taking away our support.”