Why We Will Continue to Fight for Charter Schools

There are no more tears when it is time to talk school with Miles. For the first time, I feel confident that I have true partners in ensuring that our son has a great academic future. Miles, a fifth grader, loves Mr. Ekanayake’s science class and Miss Ibarra’s humanities class, and he’s especially fond of his advisory leader, Mr. Fleming. Miles has also turned a corner for the better in math, with Miss Krieger. What is particularly interesting is how inquiry class with Mr. Hicke has helped Miles understand how his brain is developing.

I see that he has become a better learner, he is more independent, responsible, and accountable for the results he is able to achieve. He used to think he wasn’t smart or good enough for school. It pained me to hear him say things about his past school experiences like, “The kids in my class are making fun of me because I need help with reading and math.” Now, I hear, “Mom, I got this,” and “I have it under control.” His rising confidence and improved progress is no coincidence; in fact, I believe it is because he is in his first year at Rainier Prep, one of eight new public charter schools that opened in Washington in the fall of 2015.

For Miles to reach this pivotal point, my husband and I first had to do some pivoting of our own. Less than five years ago, we received the voter pamphlet about Initiative 1240, the ballot measure that would allow charter schools to open in Washington, and we planned to vote against it.

Yet at the same time as we were planning to vote no on initiative 1240, we were deeply troubled by problems plaguing our schools. The state legislature still wasn’t fully funding K-12 education and the achievement gap between white children and children of color just kept getting bigger. We realized that children just like our son were not getting the help they needed from a system that we had always and without question steadfastly supported. We decided that we needed to take a closer look at the initiative, and when we did, we saw an opportunity for real action to create better outcomes for kids like ours. So we voted yes on 1240. At the time, we didn’t know whether we would see public charter schools open or whether our son would benefit from them. We just knew it was time to change our thinking.

We shifted our thinking because of our own son, but we also started speaking up for kids like ours who are getting left behind in their neighborhood district schools. What started with our vote will continue with our advocacy for higher quality public education choices for all kids in a system that isn’t working for too many kids of color, low-income students, and those with special education needs. When I walk into a public charter school, I see friends and neighbors and all the wonderful students and families who deserve — and are receiving — a quality public education. More than two-thirds of students I see are from low-income families, more than 70 percent are students of color, and many are English language learners.

Just weeks after public charter schools opened, the Washington State Supreme Court threw us for a tail-spin. Because of how public charter schools are governed, the court ruled that they could not be called “common schools,” which meant they could not be paid for by the same funding mechanism as the district schools my oldest son Allen attends. The court’s ruling created a lot of uncertainty and confusing press about what was going to happen to the 1,100 kids and their families already enrolled in public charter schools. As parents and citizens we knew that it was important to fight back and that we needed to raise our voices for change.

The day the state Supreme Court made its ruling, we knew we needed to be the voices for change. We joined families and advocates from across Washington on multiple trips to the Capitol in Olympia and rallied not just to save public charter schools, but also to send legislators a message that we will not be turned away. We met with state legislators, collected signatures on petitions, wrote to our local papers, and got just about every student engaged in real-life civic activism.

Due to support in both the State House and Senate, we finally got SB 6194: a quality bill to save our schools, with a different funding path than “common schools,” and improved oversight which was at the heart of the fight. Although the bill passed into law without the governor’s signature, we were satisfied. We would not have had victory without the support of courageous Democrats who were able to step away from their party’s traditional and ideological opposition to public charter schools, and whose votes symbolize that we can have a healthy public charter school sector and still be aligned with progressive values on quality education.

Now, as we look ahead to our next year as a Rainier Prep family, we prepare for more legislative and judicial battles over our strong new charter school law. Ideally, our energies would be spent solely on strengthening these schools as they enter their second year, but we realize we will likely have to continue to fight for the progress we have made. We’re certain we’re headed in the right direction and staying on this path will allow thousands more children around the state to have access to a school and an education that works best for each and every one of them, just like our son has at Rainier Prep.