AP NEWS

Citing finances, 2nd charter school quits Washington state

May 16, 2019

SEATTLE (AP) — A Seattle area charter school is closing at the end of the school year next month, the second to quit since publicly funded, privately run schools began operating in Washington state five years ago.

Thelma Jackson, board chairwoman of Soar Academy in Tacoma, said about 75 percent of its 200 students had made arrangements as of April to transfer to another school for the following term.

The charter school announced in January that it was shutting down at the end of the school year, citing financial constraints. Jackson said Soar wasn’t operating on a deficit, but the budget forecast going forward was dire.

The school was one of the state’s first charters and in its four-year existence had weathered a period of political turbulence culminating with a major state Supreme Court victory won in 2018.

Jackson said most of Soar’s students had no other option but return to the public school district, although some parents have inquired about homeschooling. It is the only elementary charter school in Tacoma and its staff of 20 teachers and aides will lose their jobs.

It had outgrown its space and couldn’t afford to move to a larger one, curbing its future enrollment and per-student public funding. Supplemental grant money was drying up and Jackson lamented how the privately run school could not tap into the local levy dollars that taxpayers approved for the public school system.

“There’s only so many grants you can write and so many additional sources of money that you can come up with,” Jackson said.

Soar opened four years ago with a contract, or charter, from the state to offer kindergarten through 8th grade, though its enrollment only expanded to reach 5th grade this year.

Jackson said Soar had a high percentage of expensive-to-teach students with special needs or who were homeless or low-income. That made Soar’s schooling model too expensive because it was designed to have a teacher and an aide in every class and promised to keep in-house the troubled students who may otherwise be suspended or expelled, which required additional adult manpower.

Soar will be the second school to disappear from the young charter sector in the state since the model began operating in the 2014-15 school year. Today, Washington has 13 charter schools open.

A narrowly-approved 2012 ballot measure that was heavily backed by billionaire philanthropists such as Microsoft co-founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen allowed for up to 40 charter schools in the state in the first five years, though growth has been hampered for years by legal challenges lead by the state teachers union.

“It’s been one struggle after another,” Jackson said.

A state Supreme Court ruling in 2015 dismantled the entire charter law, citing its funding model as unconstitutional.

Lawmakers eventually approved a second charter law, which was again contested but later upheld by the high court in a second ruling in late 2018.

In between lawsuits, the first charter school to open in Washington state, First Place Scholars, converted back to a private school. The Seattle-based school opted to quit the charter model instead of restarting its authorized contract, a decision that came after the state had already put the school on probation for misreporting its finances.

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Follow AP Education Reporter Sally Ho on Twitter: https://twitter.com/_SallyHo.