We are leaders at three Spokane charter public schools. Charter schools are a type of public school that are nonprofit, publicly funded, staffed by certified teachers, and held accountable to state and national standards. In exchange for higher levels of accountability, our schools have more flexibility than traditional public schools to take creative approaches, personalize learning, and give students from all backgrounds the chance to go to a great school that works for them.
Our schools are designed to disrupt cycles of poverty and injustice. They are free, open to all, and focus on serving systemically underserved students, including students from limited-income households, Global Majority students (i.e., Black, Brown, Indigenous, and students of color), students who receive special education services, and teen parents. In fact, Washington’s charter school law prioritizes schools designed to expand opportunities for systemically underserved students, and our student demographics show that we are delivering on this promise.
Here in Spokane, charter public schools have proven to be a positive part of our public school system. Since 2015, PRIDE Prep and Spokane International Academy (SIA) have been attracting Spokane-area families who are looking for different options for students who have different learning styles and needs. In 2020, Lumen High School opened a first-of-its-kind charter public school for teen parents that includes a child care center for students’ young children. In 2021, SIA was approved to expand its grade-level offerings from K-8 to K-12, based on its strong performance to date and demand from the community. In June, PRIDE Prep, which offers hands-on, project-based experiential education and is an International Baccalaureate (IB) Authorized World School, will graduate its first class of high school seniors.
While statewide, our schools attract and educate higher percentages of systemically underserved students than traditional public schools, charter public schools are not entitled to local property tax levies, creating a funding gap of between $1,500 to $3,000 per student. This means fewer resources for students who need that funding most. This is fundamentally unjust.
To help address this funding inequity, state legislators are considering a budget provision that would provide levy equalization funding for charter public school students.
This approach would mirror levy equalization funding provided to tribal compact schools that addresses a similar lack of access to local property tax levies. It offers a simple fix to a clear structural inequity: a type of public school serving higher rates of systemically underserved students being funded up to $3,000 less per student than at traditional public schools.
We believe that charter public school funding equity is an issue that aligns closely with the Legislature’s stated focus this session on narrowing systemic inequities.
To advance equity in education, we must close persistent and pernicious opportunity gaps, and charter public schools are one policy tool, among many, that can help close them. The early results for students attending charter public schools here in Washington are promising. Washington charter public schools have a 99% college acceptance rate, while a 2019 State Board of Education report found that, “charter school students made on average more than one year of academic growth in ELA and math, while the noncharter school (TPS) students made approximately one year of academic growth in ELA and math.”
We are also collaborating with our traditional district peers, fulfilling the original intent of charter public schools that, as Al Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers envisioned, as “laboratories of innovation” that share best practices with the traditional public schools (and vice versa). Our schools have enjoyed a collaborative relationship with our authorizer, Spokane Public Schools.
Our flexible models have enabled us to be nimble and responsive during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, all three of our schools were able to pivot quickly and effectively to virtual models in Spring 2020. Lumen High School successfully launched amidst the pandemic. Since November, Lumen has been offering COVID-safe in-person learning to teen students, and since February, has been providing on-site childcare for students’ children.
While our traditional public schools are working well for many students, many families in our community are choosing charter public schools (charter public school enrollment is up 35% this year) because they desperately need something different. We cannot afford to continue inequitably funding the public education of students who would otherwise fall through the cracks.
It is the duty of every lawmaker and every citizen to ensure that every child has access to a high-quality public education. Equitable funding for charter public school students is one practical step toward a more just system – and the Legislature can help achieve it.
Shauna Edwards, school founder, Lumen High School in Spokane
Travis Franklin, chief executive officer, Spokane International Academy in Spokane
Brenda McDonald, superintendent, PRIDE Schools in Spokane