Slow to gain approval and stymied by lawsuits, charter schools in Washington are steadily expanding nonetheless.

Share story

Controversy surrounding charter schools in Washington has barely abated since the voter initiative allowing them passed, narrowly, in 2012, quickly followed by dueling lawsuits.

The legality of these publicly funded schools exempt from certain regulations remains in limbo. But that did not deter Natalie Hester from jumping in — first, by enrolling her daughter in one of Washington’s first charters, Summit Sierra in Seattle; and now, by helping to build a brand-new network of them called Impact Public Schools.

The first, Impact Elementary, has been approved to open in Tukwila for the 2018-19 school year. It has received a $1 million grant from the Charter School Growth Fund, partially funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to aid in creating eight schools statewide.

“I knew the risks,” said Hester, referring to a lawsuit filed in 2015 by a union-led coalition asserting Washington’s statute was unconstitutional. “But I thought it was a risk worth taking. We have to have some other options for kids.”

A King County judge ruled that the lawsuit failed to make its case. The Washington Education Association has appealed.

Hester was, and remains, a parent with children in Seattle Public Schools. But after her younger daughter encountered four first-year elementary teachers in a row — and continued to struggle academically — Hester began to wonder if there was a better answer.

Her older daughter, meanwhile, was having difficulty with math, and Hester worried that it might hinder the teen’s chances for college.

According to numbers from the Washington Charter Association, similar concerns have drawn the families of 2,500 students toward charter schools, which tout a more flexible approach to education, better tailored to student needs.

Currently, the state has eight operating, in Seattle, Spokane, Kent and Tacoma. Two more — Summit Atlas in West Seattle and Green Dot Middle School in South Seattle — are scheduled to open this fall.

Another two — including Impact and Willow Public School in Walla Walla — are approved for 2018.

Though charters have existed nationally for more than two decades, they were slow to catch on in Washington, which was among the last states to pass a law permitting them.

Though challenges remain, victories at the ballot box, before the courts and within the Legislature have made charter families increasingly confident, said Cynara Lilly, a spokeswoman for the state association.

Washington’s law allows for up to 40 charter schools to open by 2021.