Eleven years ago, my daughter came into my life. I looked down into her little face and made a commitment that I would do whatever is in my power to give her the best life possible.
At first, I was just worried about getting her to sleep through the night and leaving the house in the morning without spit-up on my shirt. As she grew, my worries grew. My heart was walking around outside of my body on a daily basis and all I wanted to do was to protect it.
I enrolled my daughter in Van Asselt Elementary, the neighborhood public school. The teachers and most of the administration were well-meaning enough, but the program was not working for her. When it comes to education, one size does not fit all students, and my daughter’s experience in the traditional system did not work for her. We struggled through three-and-a-half years of the traditional public school system before the world turned upside down. The pandemic hit, forest fires raged, and generations of prejudice and fear spilled out into the streets for the world to watch.
The days of worrying about spit-up on my clothes seem like they are from another lifetime. Now, stepping outside the house could be deadly. Seattle Public Schools, a large district comprising more than 113 schools and some 47,000 students, struggled to respond swiftly and effectively. I observed my daughter struggling to engage, and to access her schoolwork electronically. I ended up creating my own curriculum targeting the deficits built up over the previous years. The goals were to keep my daughter safe, attend to her emotional well-being, and help her start sixth grade with confidence. It was during this time that I happened to pass by Rainier Valley Leadership Academy (RVLA) and thought to myself, “I’ve tried everything else.”
RVLA is a public charter school in South Seattle founded in 2017 that serves grades 6-12. The school offers a free, public, college-preparatory curriculum focusing on decolonizing education for indigenous people and people of color. When I reached out to RVLA, the administration team immediately wrapped their arms around us. I was connected directly with the school principal, and on the same day, received registration paperwork, a laptop, course books, and my daughter’s class schedule. To this day, I have had no regrets about my choice of a charter public school for my daughter.
My daughter has a mentor with whom she meets daily. Her classes include music production, African history, and beadwork, as well as the standards (math, science, English and physical education). She is in a class with 15 other students, is on the Honor Roll, and gets one-on-one access to her teachers, the vast majority of whom identify as Black, Indigenous, People of Color. RVLA has far exceeded my expectations; yet, I recognize that this level of excellence should be the standard.
As a young Black woman, my daughter feels seen, challenged and supported in a way that she never was in any of her previous schools—and supported in a way that I could not when I homeschooled her on my own. I tried everything else, and RVLA was the only thing that ended up working. Charter public schools like RVLA are centering students like my daughter, who have been marginalized in traditional school systems for far too long.
A functional and equitable public school system is vital to individual and societal success. Traditional public school is working for many, but not all, students. For many families who are not in a position to afford private schools and tutors, or who are uncomfortable with parochial school as an alternative, charter public schools are a meaningful and necessary option.
In our city and state, families of color are choosing charter public schools at disproportionately high rates, indicating a particularly high need for public school options among families of color. Yet currently, charter public school students receive about 25% less funding than their peers at traditional public schools. This must change.
Every parent, regardless of income, neighborhood, school district, religious affiliation, economic position, or ethnicity deserves to look at their child and know that they are giving that child the best shot in life. There is a great deal of work to be done to ensure that the broader public education system is working for all students, and it will take time for changes in policy and practice to be implemented. But for families in communities who have students who have been underserved or failed by the traditional system—we cannot wait. Our students deserve to have charter public school options, and they deserve to be equitably funded. They cannot continue to suffer while state leaders figure out how to reform the traditional system.
Denying equitable funding for the education of students who are attending charter public schools only perpetuates systemic inequities that negatively impact Indigenous students and students of color. It’s time to stop seeing charter public schools as outside of the public system and fund all public schools equitably. Our children deserve nothing less.