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With Opening Of Seattle's 'First Place,' Charter Schools Have Arrived In Washington

Kyle Stokes
A First Place Scholars Charter School student, right, and his mother prepare for a ceremonial ribbon-cutting to mark the school's re-opening this year as Washington state's first charter school.

A longtime Seattle private school will re-open its doors Wednesday as a charter school, the first to do so under a new state law that lets nonprofit organizations use state dollars to run public schools.

The conversion of First Place Scholars School is just the beginning of Washington's experiment with charter schools, which voters set in motion by passing a closely-contested initiative allowing for up to 40 charters to open statewide before 2019.

At least seven more chartersare set to open in King and Pierce counties at the beginning of the 2015-16 school year. Even more groups have applied to follow suit.

"When you plant a new seedling, a new idea in the ground, you've got to have rain," said state Rep. Eric Pettigrew, D-Seattle, making a metaphor out of the damp weather during a ribbon-cutting ceremony at First Place on Wednesday. "Out of that seedling will become the new fruit of learning and education. It's not the same fruit we've all been munching on, but it's nourishing, and it's going to feed some kids and families that have never been fed before."

How 'First Place' Fits In A Broader Funding Debate

Credit Kyle Stokes / KPLU
First Place Scholars Charter School board president Dan Seydel addresses a crowd before a ceremonial ribbon-cutting to mark the school's conversion from a private school to a charter school.

Leaders of First Place, located just blocks from Garfield High School in Seattle's Central District,said the public funding that comes with their charter label will allow the school to nearly double its enrollment over the next two years.

The school had served poor and homeless students as a private school for 25 years. While it was on decent financial footing before converting to a charter, the school's board president — local entrepreneur Dan Seydel — said the charter designation offers First Place a more stable source of funding.

Critics have long said charter schools drain badly-needed funds from traditional school districts. And  charter school skeptics in Washington have taken it a step further, pointing out that the launch of the state's first charters coincides with hearings on the state Supreme Court's McCleary case, which holds state lawmakers have badly underfunded public schools for years.

"You're talking about a system that's starved already," said Wayne Au, an education professor at the University of Washington-Bothell and plaintiff to a case challenging the state's charter law. "And then you bring in charter schools and... it does impact the funding of the broader public education system in some critical ways."

'If We Took 'Charter School' Off Our Name...'

But while Au's concerns target the broader charter school movement, which he feels is geared more toward helping private education providers than a public good, he's careful to say individual schools can do good work for underserved student populations.

School leader Evie Livingston said nearly every First Place student receives free or reduced price lunches. The school offers an on-site clothing bank and help for families in search of housing or medical care.

"If we took charter school off the name of our school and just called it First Place School, which it was called before, no one had a concern. As soon as we became First Place Scholars Charter School, then people are wondering, 'What's going on?'" Livingston said. "What they don't realize is the same funding and outreach that we've done in the past, we're only trying to increase it to serve more kids."

What's Next For First Place And Washington Charters

First Place will begin operating under a five-year charter contract. To fulfill it, the school will have to meet academic and financial performance goals. Though state law says the school's charter can be revoked at any time if it fails to meet those goals, Seydel said he isn't worried.

"I feel very confident we will be able to meet, if not exceed, the requirements we have to adhere to," he said.

But Au, also a critic of accountability systems that lean too heavily on standardized tests, point out the school's standardized test scores will factor largely into how its academic performance is judged. Au says the underserved student populations First Place serves are often at a disadvantage while taking standardized tests.

Au and several other plaintiffs successfully convinced a King County Superior Court judge that charter schools cannot be considered a "common school." Though the ruling did render a portion of the state's charter law unconstitutional, the Attorney General's office said much of the initiative remains intact. In October, the state Supreme Court will hear arguments on that decision.

Editor's note: A previous version of the story indicated the ruling rendered "the bulk" of the state's charter law unconstitutional. While the ruling did bar charters from receiving some state funds, it also did not stop the process of granting new charters or opening new schools.

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.