Comment: Lawmakers must provide equity to charter school kids

Unable to seek local levies, charter schools receive less per-student funding than public schools.

By Debra Lekanoff / For The Herald

Washington families have choices when it comes to schooling. Families can choose from traditional public schools, charter public schools, tribal compact schools, public magnet schools, online academies and more. While these choices are available, they are not equitable.

Washington state has more than 2,300 traditional public schools and 16 charter public schools. Charter public schools are free, open to all, nonprofit, and overseen by a strict, layered accountability system comprised of state public agencies. Charter public school teachers are also subject to the same state standards as traditional public-school teachers. What sets charter public schools apart from traditional schools is that they have extra freedom to innovate with learning methods and are better able to adapt to meet the needs of the communities they serve.

It is that flexibility in learning style and culturally centered learning that leads some to choose charter public schools when the traditional public school in their community is not a fit. This is particularly true for Black, Brown, Asian, Indigenous and other students of color, where the expectation leans to assimilation more than acknowledgement and respect of cultural identity. In fact, charter public schools educate more students of color, as a percentage, than traditional public schools, with 62 percent of charter public school students identifying as members of the Global Majority compared to 50 percent of students in traditional public schools.

I come from a community where education was used as a tool to “kill the Indian to save the man.” While I don’t speak for all Indigenous peoples, I can say as a Native American that there are many ways to teach and learn. Whether it is a charter public school or tribal compact school, we should have that right and more importantly, that choice.

But this public, voter-approved alternative comes with a penalty. Ten years after establishment of a regulated charter public school system, students in charter public school classrooms receive up to $3,000 less per student in public education funding, compared to their peers in traditional public schools.

It’s unacceptable that any student in Washington has less of an opportunity than another. There has been plenty of time to get it right. This is inequitable. It’s wrong. And I’m committed to fighting for those parents and students who want the right to learn in ways that best fit their way of life, culture, and learning capabilities.

As we move through the devastation of the pandemic, we are not serving students in this state by returning to a pre-2020 status quo. In 2013, the Legislature authorized the creation of tribal compact schools. Tribal compact schools, like charter public schools, are public schools designed to provide additional high-quality public school options to meet the needs of systemically underserved students in our state. Like charter public schools, they are not eligible to receive local property tax levies. As a result, tribal compact schools, like charter public schools, faced a funding gap of up to $3,000 per student. However, in 2019 the Legislature tackled this funding inequity for tribal compact school students and passed Senate Bill 5313. The state readily makes an investment in its traditional public schools, and charter public school students deserve the same expression of confidence in their future from the people elected to represent them.

While traditional public schools work for most, the reality is they don’t work for everyone. We should embrace opportunities to support all of Washington’s students. The alternative is hypocrisy highlighted by what we say about equity, and what we do. We have spent considerable time talking about equity and now is the chance to put our money where our mouth is.

Simple solutions should be without controversy and equitable public school education is one on which we should all agree. I know there are leaders on both sides of the aisle that understand passage of legislation to address inequity in our public school system is a solution to a problem we want to fix. I hope we can come together this legislative session on behalf of students and families and create a more equitable public school system in our state.

State Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Anacortes, represents the 40th Legislative District of Washington. One of two Native American woman currently serving in the Legislature, she is a proud mom who fights every day to ensure younger generations, including her daughter Emma, can continue to flourish.

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