By Marcus Harden
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is … the white moderate … who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action” … who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season” … Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail
Being an educator has been one of the greatest joys of my life. I often say I’m model agnostic, as we often lose sight of the destination, equitable education for all, arguing over the vehicle. From the federal policy level, service in Seattle Public Schools, K-12, Charter Schools, Alternative learning, program design that serves in several districts/nationally and professional coaching & learning for nearly 19 years, it’s truly a privilege to serve the most important people in parents’ lives, their children.
However, I found myself gravely disappointed during the recently completed legislative session, amidst the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and racial reckoning, leaders of the Washington State Legislature explicitly stated that they intended to center racial justice and focus the session on narrowing systemic inequities. But, while the Legislature made important progress in many aspects of this work, one group of Washingtonians – largely Black, Brown, Asian, Indigenous, and people of color – were told, to wait.
Charter public schools are not entitled to local property tax levies, creating a funding gap of between
$1,500 to $3,000 per student. Because charter public schools educate a disproportionately high percentage of Black, Brown, Asian, Indigenous, and students of color, this funding gap means fewer resources for students who need that funding most, who are a part of the public education tapestry.
This legislative session families and communities advocated for state funding that would help address this gap, comparable to levy equalization funding for traditional public schools and tribal compact schools. While the House of Representatives included a charter public school funding equity provision in its final budget proposal, the Senate did not. In the final days of the session, budget negotiators stripped this funding from the final version of the budget.
By not addressing this systemic inequity now, the Legislature is essentially asking charter public school students and families – most of whom are Black, Brown, Asian, Indigenous, and people of color – to wait. This is particularly frustrating, given that it happened during a legislative session in which legislators claimed to center racial equity.
Dr. Maya Angelou once said courage is “the most important of the virtues, because without it, you can do nothing else.” Educators and policymakers talk often about the “opportunity gap” and, recently, the “learning gap” caused by COVID-19. This legislative session, charter public school students were also affected by the “courage gap” as many legislators asked them to wait for equitable funding and to wait for the Legislature to address this systemic inequity.
Washington’s charter public school policy is unique for its focus on disrupting cycles of poverty and injustice.
Charter public schools are one policy tool, among many, that can help advance equity in education. The early results for students attending charter public schools here in Washington are promising. Charter public schools have a 99% college acceptance rate while the State Board of Education has found that, “charter school students made on average more than one year of academic growth in ELA and math, while the non-charter school (TPS) students made approximately one year of academic growth in ELA and math.” These encouraging data reflect results nationally, where numerous studies have found that charter public schools significantly boost outcomes for students in urban areas – especially for Black, Hispanic, and low-income students.
Parents in charter public school communities are choosing charter public schools (charter public school enrollment is up 35% this year) because they know that one size does not fit all. While our traditional public schools are working well for most students, we know that there are still many students falling through the cracks. We can no longer afford to wait for a “more convenient season” to equitably fund the urgent needs of these students and their families.
Marcus Harden is an educator, parent, believer, and advocate. He is the co-founder of the Academy for Creating Excellence, Seattle Public Schools Graduate/Educator and Administrator and Community Engagement & Policy Manager for the Washington State Charter Schools Association.