Right out of the gate, the state panel governing charter schools faced a tough decision about whether to pull the plug on the state’s first charter school.
Suit jackets came off as the air temperature rose in a small room in Mount Vernon in May, where the state’s charter-school commission started to debate whether to revoke its contract with Washington’s first charter school.
For four hours, seven members of the commission hashed through all the problems with First Place Scholars of Seattle, where shaky finances and, at times, inadequate educational services had been on the commission’s radar since shortly after school started.
One member repeatedly said how anxious she felt at the thought of having to make a decision. Even the commission’s executive director had to pause to compose himself when he told commissioners there was enough evidence to revoke the school’s contract.
Timeline of state’s first charter school
January 2014: State charter commission approves First Place Scholars’ charter application
September 2014: Classes start at First Place
October 2014: Commission issues first notice of concern for an open-meetings law violation; president of First Place’s board resigns
November 2014: First Place principal resigns
December 2014: Commission places First Place on probation for more than a dozen compliance problems, including having no special-education teacher and incomplete background checks on staff
June 2015: Commission votes 4-3 not to revoke public funding for First Place, and instead places the school on a one-year probation requiring monthly updates
Source: Washington State Charter School Commission, First Place Scholars Charter School
Deliberations were no less tense at a meeting last week, when commissioners narrowly voted to allow First Place to go forward for now, albeit on a tight leash, given continuing concerns about the school’s financial viability.
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The meetings capped months of grueling deliberations on the new state panel, formed a few months after voters approved a 2012 law allowing charters in this state.
Deciding whether to close a struggling school is the hardest choice that charter school authorizers face, charter advocates say, and Washington’s commission faced that right out of the gate. Both commission members and school leaders have looked critically at how the commission has handled that question over the past year.
Some say the commission has done the best it could, given the unexpected exodus of many of First Place’s leaders just a month after the school switched from a private school to a publicly funded, but independently run charter. But others argue that, had the state paid more attention to charter-school startups across the U.S., things could have turned out differently.
“Any charter school at this point that doesn’t have a strong start is showing you something about faults in the system that set it up in the first place,” said Meredith Honig, an associate professor in the University of Washington College of Education who studies charter schools.
And it’s clear that the commission has had to grow up more quickly — and more publicly — than those in other states, said William Haft, of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.
Commissioners have said they continue to be moved by the compelling story of First Place, a small school of about 75 students that for nearly three decades has served mostly homeless children in Seattle’s Central District.
But they have wrestled with how many chances the struggling school deserves.
“This is hard,” Commissioner Margit McGuire said during the long hours of deliberations at the meeting in May.
While the school faces serious financial challenges, she said, it has heart.
By some counts, the commission gave the school at least three “last chances.” Once was earlier this month, when the commission sent the school a letter offering the school “a final opportunity” to demonstrate that it was meeting the terms set out in its contract, or charter.
In March, it sent a similar letter, saying that notice provided the school “one final opportunity” to respond to concerns.
Most recently, the commission voted 4-3 against closing First Place, opting instead for a year of probation and monthly reports on special-education services and finances.
The commission is still trying to determine how closely to monitor the school.
Tom Franta, who leads the state’s nonprofit charter-school association, said the commission’s oversight has gone too far, and is infringing on the autonomy charters were promised.
“They’ve recognized the difficulty of trying to strike the balance between a high degree of accountability and oversight, versus the flexibility that’s afforded in our charter law,” Franta said. “They’re struggling with that balance.”
But First Place leaders say the commission is at last working more collaboratively with the school.
Dawn Mason, who took over as president of First Place’s board after the last president resigned, has at times spoken critically about the commission. But this week, she said its latest decision shows it is moving beyond what she saw as a punitive stance.
“We’re getting to the partnership. It should have been a partnership from the beginning,” she said. “We will open in September a much different school than what opened last September.”
There’s little question that First Place has, at times, been in chaos.
Out of compliance
From day one, it was out of compliance with its charter agreement. And not long after school started, the board president, half its members and the principal resigned.
According to the 2012 charter law, the commission can revoke a charter if a school violates any of the terms of its contract, fails to meet “generally accepted standards” of fiscal management, or doesn’t make sufficient progress toward the expectations outlined in the charter contract.
While revoking a school’s charter in its first year of operation is rare, it has happened, said Haft, of the national charter authorizers group. Haft has worked with Washington’s charter commission this year, and his group recommended approval for First Place’s initial charter application.
He’s among those who think the commission has done a good job by monitoring the school and being clear about its problems.
“If there had been no progress between the first notice and now, it’s an easy call,” Haft said. “There’s not an easy right answer to this one.”
ButHonig, the UW professor, questions whether the charter commission did enough to ensure the school’s success before it opened. It’s not unheard of, she said, for charter authorizers to suggest a school take another year to prepare.
In fact, she said, that’s a best practice.
Unlike the eight charters scheduled to open around Washington this fall, First Place opened as a charter only seven months after its state contract was approved. The other schools have taken at least a year and a half.
After its struggles over First Place, the commission has bolstered its application and startup process. The commission now asks for financial records from every group applying for a charter, even if, like First Place, the group has never operated a charter elsewhere.
A checklist of what a school must complete before classes start is twice as long now as it was when First Place opened, and commission staff plan to make midsummer site visits to ensure schools are on track before students walk in the front doors. That didn’t happen at First Place, where the panel took the school’s word that everything was ready.
The commission also has doubled its staff over this school year — it hired a deputy director in January, and is advertising for an accountability officer.
For its part, the commission acknowledges that part of what happened this year is due to its own growing pains as a new organization.
Still, it plans to continue to monitor First Place closely. Before voting last week to allow the school to keep its charter, Commissioner Trish Millines Dziko said she thinks the school is on the right path.
Then she looked out at the crowd of First Place parents, teachers and School Board members that had gathered at the meeting.
“But I say this with caution,” she told them. “Don’t make me look like a fool in three months.”