OLYMPIA, Aug. 20.—Two leading business organizations announced their support Monday for this year’s charter-schools initiative, no surprise given business support for a similar measure in the Legislature this year. But it means the last missing piece of the coalition that will battle for Initiative 1240 this season has fallen into place, while offering a counterpoint to a curious rebuff from the state PTA last week.
Declaring their endorsement for I-1240 Monday were the Association of Washington Business and the Washington Roundtable.
The measure is prompting one of the hottest issue campaigns of the year, pitting ed reformers against established K-12 interests — most notably the 83,000-member Washington Education Association, the state teachers’ union. I-1240 would allow public funds to be redirected from existing K-12 school districts to as many as 40 public charter schools over the next five years. The key difference is that they wouldn’t be bound by the same regulations that dictate curriculum and impose union rules on hiring and firing decisions.
Advocates say charters are an antidote to failing public school systems that just can’t get their act together. Opponents say that’s the same thing as giving up. Until this point, political opposition in this state has managed to kill charter schools in the Legislature and at the ballot box — three times since 1996. In the meantime charter schools have swept the country and are now allowed in 41 other states.
It’s a big issue for the business community. The Roundtable, early on, was one of the big supporters of a similar bill in this year’s Legislature that essentially triggered the initiative campaign. The bill met a not-altogether-unexpected death in the House and Senate education committees this year when Democratic chairwomen aligned with the teacher’s union refused to permit a vote. Yet until now business groups have not played much of a role in the campaign. It has been coordinated by ed-reform groups like the League of Education Voters and Stand for Children and financed by E-list tech moguls headed by Bill Gates. In Tuesday’s announcement, Roundtable president Steve Mullin said, “We recognize that our public schools are working for hundreds of thousands of Washington students, but we also know that they aren’t working for every child. This initiative is based on more than two decades of public charter school experience in other states to help reach students that might otherwise fall through the cracks.”
Said AWB president Don Brunell, “Across our state, employers are facing significant challenges finding qualified employees. We need to find new ways to prepare Washington students for the workplace, and public charter schools are an important tool for doing that.”
A PTA Snub
The state PTA, meanwhile, has pulled a switcheroo. The national organization supports charter schools. The state organization endorsed the general concept last October. And in May the membership beat an attempt to take it all back, 170-92. Nevertheless directors of the association voted 11-6 to oppose I-1240 at a board meeting a week ago, aligning the organization’s 143,000 parental volunteers with established K-12 interests.
The reversal seems all the clearer when one reads the position paper the PTA adopted last fall. Last year the membership declared that mandatory state intervention for poor-performing schools was too slow. Where existing schools aren’t doing the job, it said families deserve options. So why the turnabout? It’s worth noting that the organization has been deeply divided at every vote, and charter schools seemed to fare better when there were hundreds in the room.
The organization’s directors say it’s all about the details. Under I-1240, charter schools would be overseen either by local school boards or a state charter-school commission. Suppose it’s the latter, said Washington PTA president Novella Fraser – that means local control and opportunities for parental involvement would be diminished. There’s also no guarantee that parents have a seat on school governing boards. “This wasn’t a decision about the value of charter schools,” she said in a press release. “This was a decision about whether this initiative met our criteria.”
Charter school advocates scoff and say parental involvement is a given – motivated parents are what get the schools off the ground. And they note that the initiative specifically requires that charter schools develop a plan for effective parental participation.