Good morning, CharterFolk.
Today I am pleased to be sharing with you a Contributor Column from Natalie Hester, the Senior Vice President of Policy at the Washington State Charter Schools Association.
I provide a bio below.
Natalie serves as WA Charters’ Senior Vice President, Policy. An experienced advocate and leader in the K-12 education space with a background in economic and community development, Natalie has spent more than two decades working to ensure that families in South Seattle and statewide have access to affordable housing, and high-quality education options that they deserve. Most recently, Natalie served as the Washington state organizing director for a national nonprofit education advocacy organization, where she focused on supporting families in their fight for improved college and career readiness standards and for the expansion of counseling and mental health resources in schools. Natalie has personal and professional experience in both district and charter public schools. Since entering the charter school space in 2015 as a founding parent at Summit Sierra High School in Seattle, Natalie has used her voice in a variety of roles – including volunteer, parent leader, charter school co-founder, and charter school board member – to influence legislation, statewide policy, accountability, and leadership practices within the charter space, that improve the experiences and outcomes of students who are furthest from educational justice. Natalie also served on the WA Charters Board of Directors from 2016 – 2019. Natalie is passionate about increasing the number of community-led, anti-racist public schools and ensuring that we have strong policies that are informed by the needs, desires, and voices of parents and families. Natalie has is the proud parent of two daughters who currently attend college and Seattle Public Schools and is an active member and volunteer in her South Seattle community. Contact Natalie at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Let’s get straight to Natalie’s column.
The Moral Argument Alone is Not Enough to Carry the Day
Jed has written that “membership associations … [engaging] in policy and political work have great potential to increase charter schools’ collective advocacy strength.” We couldn’t agree more.
WA Charters’ top advocacy priority for the past three legislative sessions has been addressing charter school funding inequity. Over the past three legislative sessions, proposals to provide some degree of funding equity for charter schools have made it to the final days or hours of the legislative session. But in each of the past three years, the legislature or the governor ultimately rejected the equitable public funding that our students and families deserve.
Racial equity has been at the core of our advocacy message. This past session we were very intentional and explicit about detailing the racial equity implications of our policy priorities, and equity was the central theme of our messaging as conveyed in our meetings with legislators, our letters and emails to them, and in our earned and paid media.[i]For example, here is an excerpt from an op-ed that our colleague and black education and community leader Marcus Harden wrote after the 2021 legislative session, naming a “courage gap” in the state legislature:
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.
However, while we will continue to lead with a strong equity message going forward (and, if anything, plan to sharpen that message) one learning from our past three legislative sessions is that the moral argument alone is not enough to carry the day. Instead, we will need advocacy and political muscle – in combination with being on the right side of history – to further elevate the voices of our families, schools, and communities and ultimately prevail in this fight.
In a recent guest post, Ariel Johnson outlined three efforts that she believes, if collectively executed, could shift charter public school legislative advocacy outcomes:
- Community Organizing: We have to create authentic family and community engagement to support long-term organizing of families.
- Harnessing Our Electoral Power: Without a strong political operation, the work of holding the line for Illinois charters would be virtually impossible. INCS Action is now the third largest super PAC in the state.
- A Willingness to Say the Thing: We have the data on our side. By and large, charter public schools are changing outcomes for students all over this country and have been for thirty years. We are serving children that the traditional public-school system has failed. We have a trove of alumni who are actively rebuilding their communities because of the education they received. We have committed, mission driven teachers and advocates who have dedicated their careers to the stabilization of public education for all students.
At WA Charters, we will be working to execute on these specific suggestions, as well as the broader menu of CharterFolk advice and suggestions, to build the long-term advocacy infrastructure and capacity we need to elevate the voices of our students, families, and schools and to effectively engage in policy and political work on their behalf.
We anticipate that WA Charters may need to take a more public and assertive posture as we move forward, and not rely solely on our parents or school leaders to carry the sharper-edged equity message that we are contemplating – because we should not ask our parents to say something to legislators that we are not willing to say ourselves. We have the ability (and obligation) to use our position of privilege and power to speak our truth (and the truth of the students, families, and schools we represent). To do so most effectively, we will need to use every organizational tool available to us to help build our advocacy strength and capacity.
We also know that we need to build a stronger and broader base of charter public school advocates. Last legislative session, pandemic restrictions presented a challenge in building school-based advocacy strength and precluded many of the successful grassroots tactics we utilized in the past. We were able to supplement much of that energy through a newly developed Phone2Action digital organizing campaign. Still, there is no substitute for on-the-ground people power. With a longer lead time before the upcoming session and reduced pandemic restrictions, we are eagerly working to build family, educator, and community strength on a school-by-school basis. By the start of the upcoming session in January, we want to have the ability to elevate and support powerful grassroots voices, in high numbers, directly to legislators.
In short, we need to take a multi-pronged approach to the various aspects of advocacy work so we can better support additional parent and student voices in the funding equity debate. We aim to provide the infrastructure and megaphone so that parents can deliver their (morally compelling and equity-focused) message directly to legislators on a much broader scale than we have been able to do in the past.
Finally, we are incredibly grateful for the work of the CharterFolk community and your collective willingness to help build advocacy strength among membership associations like ours across the country. We look forward to continuing to collaborate with you all to support our students, families, and communities and work to promote greatly more public education for all.
[i] Paid media: Throughout the session, WA Charters ran a 30-second TVW spot in support of charter public schools roughly 33 times per week, and radio ads on three Washington NPR affiliates.
Earned media: Op-eds, editorials, and blog posts from an expansive and diverse set of community voices called on legislators to equitably fund charter public school students:
- The Olympian: Charter public schools need fair funding from Washington state | The Olympian
- Kitsap Sun: Charter schools deserve equitable funding (kitsapsun.com)
- Tacoma News Tribune: Washington state charter schools need better funding | Tacoma News Tribune (thenewstribune.com)
- Spokesman Review: Shauna Edwards, Travis Franklin and Brenda McDonald: Educational justice for charter public school students requires equitable funding | The Spokesman-Review
- Rise Up for Students (Seattle-based blog): My daughter deserves an equitably funded public education — Rise Up for Students
- Additional pieces by The Seattle Times Editorial Board and Allan Golston that urge lawmakers to set politics aside, pointing to the facts of Washington state’s charter public schools, and the progress they are achieving for students who attend them.
Letters to legislators: Letters (and a video) from community leaders, parents, educators, and former legislators echoed these calls for equitable funding for charter public school students and extending the five-year authorizing window:
- Letter to legislators from three Black-led organizations: King County Equity Now, Black Education Strategies Roundtable, and ACE Academy.
- Letter to legislators from two Black parents who are leaders on education policy issues.
- Video featuring former state Representative Eric Pettigrew.
- Letter to legislators from founders and leaders of all of the state’s charter public schools.