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Fact Check: Did Mayor Durkan mislead and discriminate with her ORCA plan?

Mayor Jenny Durkan has routinely touted a plan to bring free ORCA cards to “every Seattle public high school student” in order to provide unlimited year-round access to mass transit. But some are calling her out for overstating her plan because, they argue, the mayor purposefully neglected charter school students.

Durkan’s claim

Mayor Durkan is proud of this fifth major piece of legislation from her administration. She believes it will help youth get to school and to any part time job, without having to rely on a car which, for low income students, can be a financial burden.

In a newsletter, Durkan proclaimed:

…Seattle’s youth have been calling for greater transportation equity for a number of years, and I heard them. At my first State of the City address, I announced that we would put a free ORCA card into the hands of every Seattle public high school student – and this week, we did.

Our youth asked for it, and the City delivered.

But the Washington Policy Center takes issue with a key detail in Durkan’s claim: “every” public school student.

Every student or just some?

Liv Finne, Director, Center for Education Reform with the Washington Policy Center, calls out Durkan. In a blog post, Finne says Durkan is intentionally leaving out charter school students from this perk.

Far from providing “equity,” her policy of discrimination targets students who are historically underserved by traditional schools.  Her decision falls hardest on poor families and children of color; two-thirds of charter school students are low-income, minority children. Her discrimination policy affects roughly 1,000 families attending Seattle’s four public charter schools. These schools are popular with parents, and have waiting lists, especially in neighborhoods with low-quality public schools.

Charter schools are technically public schools, so wouldn’t they be beneficiaries of the ORCA plan?

Charter schools already provided the perk – kind of

This is where the fact checking gets tricky. Durkan’s office notes that Seattle charter schools already provide this ORCA card benefits.

Summit Sierra charter high school, for example, notes that “All high school students who live more than a mile from school are eligible to receive an ORCA 11 month pass. Students who live within a mile may request a pass.”

But this perk is different from Durkan’s plan, which allows for year round use, doesn’t require you to live over a mile away from school, and is intended to be used to travel between school and the student’s home.

Finne argues this charter perk “is the logical consequence of Mayor Durkan’s discriminatory policy.”

“Charter schools pleaded with Mayor Durkan this summer to fund ORCA cards for their students, but she ignored them,” Finne explained. “So charter schools have had to fund ORCA cards from their budgets. Charter schools are being squeezed this way by opponents. They don’t get local levy funding. They don’t get capital funding. Now they don’t get free ORCA cards.”

Finne notes that Durkan claims her ORCA program is about offering equity to children who cannot necessarily afford to take the bus on their own. But, by dismissing charter schools, Finne argues the mayor is hurting the students she claims to want to help.

“Don’t forget the children attending these schools are mostly poor, minority children, the very people taxpayers intended to help, in part, when they passed Proposition 1 in 2014 (the source of the funding for this program),” explained Finne. “Mayor Durkan’s policy is unfair, inequitable and discriminatory.”

Fact Check: Durkan too broadly takes credit for her ORCA program

If you consider the current charter perks offering ORCA cards, it’s fair to say “every Seattle public high school student” has access to a free ORCA card.

Durkan, however, is falsely taking credit for something she had nothing to do with. If she pushed to cover the funding for the charter ORCA cards, she could and should take credit. But her program purposefully left charter schools out.

Simply saying the perk was already available doesn’t mean that her program was responsible for it, which is what she implies. Not to mention, it’s not even the same perk. Did she “discriminate?” There’s no proof she purposefully discriminated against them due to some kind of animus, though, given Progressive ire towards charter schools, it’s not beyond the pale. But, based on the evidence, that word choice is a bit too harsh for me.

And while the City of Seattle leaves open the possibility to cover charter students in the future, right now, they have access in spite of Durkan.

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