Do you remember the prolonged battle over charter schools in Washington State? There were four referenda in the state, starting in the late 1990s, and the pro-charter forces lost the first three. On the fourth try, in 2012, Bill Gates and his friends bundled millions of dollars to buy the election. They outspent civil rights groups, PTAs, and teacher associations by a margin of 16 to 1. Sixteen to one!

And Gates and friends won the election by about 1% of the vote. Then the losing side appealed to the state courts to block charter funding, which would divert money from the state’s underfunded public schools. The State Supreme Court ruled that charter schools are not “common schools,” as defined in the state constitution, because their boards are not elected. Thus, charters are not eligible to take money from the public school, fund.

Gates and friends then waged a campaign to defeat the Supreme Court judges who ruled against them, but they were re-elected despite the money thrown into the coffers of the candidates who opposed them.

Gates then put pressure on the Legislature to fund his charters. After much lobbying, the Legislature gave lottery money to sustain the billionaire’s charters (surely, you don’t expect Bill Gates to fund them himself!)

Governor Jay Inslee decided bravely not to take a stand. He neither signed nor vetoed the law diverting lottery money to support charter schools, and the law was enacted.

Gates spent millions more encouraging charters to open.

(This story, with all the details, the data, and the footnotes, is included in my new book, SLAYING GOLIATH, which will be published on January 21, 2020.)

However, it turns out that there is not a lot of demand for charters. Three closed this year due to low enrollments, which made them financially unsound.

Just this week, another charter announced that it was closing, due to dwindling enrollments and staff flight.

The Charter was approved in 2018, opened in August 2019, and is now closing.

Ashé Preparatory Academy welcomed its inaugural class of 140 students in kindergarten, first, second and sixth grades when it opened in August. Within four years, the school hoped to grow to more than 400 studentsacross grades K-8.

But within a month of opening, several staff quit or stopped showing up to work. And by Oct. 4, the day the school’s oversight board voted unanimously to close the school, enrollment had been sliced in half. Ashé’s last day of classes was Friday…

But this fall, the school’s ambitious mission was quickly overshadowed by practical problems in the classrooms. Ashé (pronounced ah-SHAY) relied on an “inclusive” classroom model, which means that students with special needs and those with advanced abilities worked alongside their peers. Teaching all levels of students can be tough for any teacher, Sullivan said, but this was particularly true for staff new to the profession.

About six of the school’s nine teachers and paraprofessionals were new, she said. In hindsight, she added, she should have hired a full-time instructional coach to aid junior staff members. The school’s principal and several staff could not be reached for comment.

On Sept. 24, the school’s oversight board held an emergency meeting after three staff resigned or stopped coming to work, meeting minutes suggest. One option the board discussed: Stop serving sixth graders.

The board convened again three days later; at that meeting, staff pleaded for more help. A first-grade teacher asked for more professional coaching, and a sixth-grade paraeducator remarked that similar calls by sixth-grade staff had gone unanswered.

Then more staff resigned and students left, too. By Oct. 1, just 90 students were enrolled, according to board-meeting minutes. And by Oct. 4, enrollment sank to 70 students.

Charter schools in Washington are publicly funded, but privately run. Sullivan said Ashé raised close to $1 million in grants and was also eligible for state funding based on the number of students enrolled. Because so many students left, the school was expected to run a $700,000 deficit this year.

The fledgling charter-school movement in Washington has grown in fits and starts. Nine are still operating, and several have plans to open over the next few years. This month, a state charter-schools nonprofit won nearly $20 million from the federal government to help new charters get off the ground. But three charters have closed this year — and with the closure of Ashé, charter-school advocates and officials say they intend to take a hard look at what went wrong.

Good old Betsy DeVos to the rescue, giving $20 million in federal funds to open new charters in a state where there is little demand for charters.

One other interesting side note: CREDO analyzed charter performance in Washington State based on three years of data and determined that there was no difference overall between charter schools and public schools.

The findings of this study show that on average, charter students in Washington State experience annual growth in reading and math that is on par with the educational gains of their matched peers who enroll in the traditional public schools (TPS) the charter school students would otherwise have attended.

Question: If both sectors get about the same results, why did Bill Gates spend millions of dollars to open a privately managed sector? Was it sheer vanity?