(Updated at 3:20 pm on Aug. 11, 2017 to clarify oversight of charter schools and the status of the latest lawsuit.)
The first day of school is still a few weeks away for most kids in Seattle, but in the Rainier Valley neighborhood, doors will open Monday at a brand-new charter school called Rainier Valley Leadership Academy. It will serve sixth graders initially, then add seventh and eighth grades in subsequent years.
The school and another charter in West Seattle called Summit Atlas are opening even as a lawsuit over charter schools is being appealed to the state Supreme Court.
On a recent Saturday morning, staff from Rainier Valley Leadership Academy gathered near the school to go door-knocking in the public housing community of NewHolly.
“We want to make sure every house gets a flyer, that if they’re a fifth grader or a sixth grader, that we get some type of contact information,” said Chastity Catchings, director of school operations for the school.
They were trying to fill the last few spots for their incoming sixth grade class of 150 students. There are lots of Somali families living at NewHolly, and it quickly became apparent that Rahmo Rashid, an instructional aide at the school who’s originally from Somalia, was an asset when it came to recruiting.
“Salam Alaikum,” she told a mother who stood with her door cracked open, surrounded by curious kids.
When Rashid comes to the door wearing a head scarf and a long, flowing garment called an abaya, they listen. She explained that the school is tuition-free and is now enrolling sixth graders.
A charter school is a publicly funded but privately run school, and this one is part of a non-profit chain from California called Green Dot Public Schools. Green Dot receives funding from the Gates Foundation and already has a middle school in Tacoma.
At the playground, Rashid approached a teenaged Somali girl who said her little sister plans to attend Rainier Valley Leadership Academy.
“She’s going there?” Rashid said. “Awesome.”
Rashid told the girl that even though the school requires that kids wear a uniform, girls can choose to wear an abaya over it.
Rashid came to the U.S. when she was eight and said she had to fight hard to get what she needed in public schools. She faced bullying and racism.
“When I was in high school, I was told: Just worry about graduating high school, don’t worry about college because I don’t think you’ll even graduate high school,” she said. “That was said to me by my counselors, by my advisors, by my teachers. It shouldn’t be like this. It should be a support system – those people who are telling you, 'You can do it, and you can do a lot more than this.’”
Rashid said she likes how Green Dot provides kids with intensive mentoring. But not everyone thinks charter schools are the answer. Chastity Catchings walked up to yet another front porch.
Sarah Wilhelm came out to stand on her porch and told Catchings that she doesn’t really support the idea of charters.
“I’m very committed to the public schools and my kids go to the local neighborhood public schools,” Wilhelm said. “I’m actually very concerned about charter schools pulling kids from the public schools and what that’s going to do to our schools that we’ve invested a lot in.”
Wilhelm said she sends her 8-year-old son to a public elementary school called Dearborn Park International. Her husband is a public school teacher. She said she voted against statewide charter school initiatives, partly because of what she witnessed living in Washington, D.C., which has had charter schools for two decades.
“We saw enrollment go down in the public schools,” she said. “Public schools were closed and then those students who were remaining – because there’s always some who are remaining – were then forced out into whatever other school, and I just think school closure is devastating to communities of color where the school can be a central aspect of that community.”
That idea that publicly funded charter schools could suck the resources out of the traditional public school system is one reason why they’re being challenged in court.
Wayne Au is a professor in the school of educational studies at the University of Washington Bothell and one of the plaintiffs who joined the League of Women Voters of Washington, the state teachers union and other groups to challenge the legality of charter schools after voters narrowly approved them in 2012.
“Essentially it’s public money with no public oversight and to me that’s both morally, and also a policy mistake,” Au said.
Their lawsuit ended in a victory in the state Supreme Court. The court said charter schools were unconstitutional because they were being funded out of the same pot of money as regular public schools but without taxpayer control since they’re not overseen by elected school boards.
Last year, the legislature passed a law to address those issues, including expanding the Washington State Charter School Commission, an independent state agency, to include two elected officials: the state superintendent of public instruction and the chair of the state board of education. The other nine members are appointed by the governor and the legislature. Charter schools can be authorized and overseen by either the commission or by a local school district.
But Au said there are still problems under the new law and that’s why he and the other plaintiffs filed another lawsuit. This past February, King County Superior Court Judge John Chun ruled against them, and they're appealing the case to the state Supreme Court.
He said that legal cloud makes it risky for new charter schools like the one in Rainier Valley to open right now.
“It could be that in six months or a year from now, the Washington state Supreme Court says, 'Look, you’re still unconstitutional, you don’t have money,’” he said. “'You need to shut it down or you need to become something else.’”
The principal of Rainier Valley Leadership Academy, Walter Chen, said he informs parents that there is ongoing litigation. But right now his focus is on preparing to take his new group of sixth graders to visit the University of Washington next week.
“It begins to plant that seed really early on that this is for me and that this is not an option really, this is the expectation,” he said. “We’re going to do everything we can to get you there.”
As for whether the school has a contingency plan in case the state Supreme Court rules that charter schools are unconstitutional, Chen said he’s not too concerned right now.
“We feel supremely confident that we’ll be around and we’ll be a viable option for families,” he said.
Charter schools remained open after the previous Supreme Court decision. One went back to being private and the rest continued to get public dollars by turning themselves into what’s known as alternative learning experiences.
The state Supreme Court hasn’t set a hearing date in the current case yet.