Judge Gives Go-Ahead to Charter School Initiative – I-1240 has 21 Days to Gather Signatures, Could Tie Record

WEA Argument Rejected at Hearing – Gates Money Might Help

By Erik Smith
Washington State Wire

Spotted Sunday at the Lacey Wal-Mart: A petition sheet for I-1240, demonstrating that the signature-gathering campaign is off and running.

OLYMPIA, June 15.—A Thurston County Superior Court judge fired the starting gun Friday in this year’s big initiative race – a breakneck 21-day effort to gather some 300,000 signatures for Initiative 1240, a measure that would permit charter schools to be established for the first time in Washington state.

Thurston County Superior Court Judge Lisa Sutton made a few minor changes to a ballot title that had been written by the state attorney general’s office, but she rejected a request from the Washington Education Association to phrase it in a negative light. So much for the last preliminary step. The starting gate opened at noon. And by late in the day the ed reformers behind this year’s effort had pressed the green button on the printing presses and were churning out petitions at full speed.

If they make it, it’s going to be one of the fastest qualifying times in state history. It also is likely to be one of Washington’s most expensive signature-gathering campaigns. There are just three weeks to go before July 6, when initiative campaigns must turn in 241,153 valid signatures – and usually a bit more than that to be on the safe side. Only one other initiative has qualified in that short a time. That was last year’s Initiative 1183, the measure that brought booze to supermarkets, which also qualified in exactly 21 days. One reason to think it might work again is that the signature gathering effort is being overseen by the same campaign consulting firm, Winner & Mandabach of Santa Monica, Calif., which makes a specialty of big-buck initiative drives.

If last year’s experience is any indication, it might cost as much as $2 million for the signature-gathering alone. But this is one campaign that might be able to pay the freight. An interesting name turned up on the list of campaign contributors this week when the May campaign-finance reports were turned in at the state Public Disclosure Commission.

Bill Gates, America’s richest man.

Glad for Green Light

“We certainly do feel a sense of urgency,” said Shannon Campion, executive director of Washington Stand for Children, one of the groups behind the measure. “We know it is a very short time line, and it will be a combination of paid and volunteer signature gathering that we will be doing. We are confident that the voters will sign the petitions to place the measure on the ballot and we will have enough signatures by the required deadline.”

The measure would allow as many as 40 private non-profit charter schools to be established, financed by public dollars that follow the student. It would allow no more than eight schools to be established each year for the next five years, and they would be subject to review by a state board. Their performance would be strictly monitored.

Washington would become the 41st state to allow the alternative schools to be established – some 5,000 have been launched nationwide, and President Obama is a supporter: Last month he proclaimed National Charter Schools Week. But in this state charter-school measures have been beaten at the statehouse largely because of the stiff opposition of the state’s dominant teachers’ union, the WEA, and its Democratic allies in the Legislature. A renewed effort this year by business groups and education reformers was beaten in the House and Senate education committees when chairwomen Sharon Tomiko-Santos and Rosemary McAuliffe refused to allow their members to take a vote. Charter school measures have appeared on the ballot three times since 1996, but have been defeated each time.

At this point the full coalition that promoted the bill in the Legislature has not yet regrouped – that’s because the Washington Roundtable, an association of the state’s largest businesses, has yet to take a formal stand. But numerous lawmakers who backed this year’s charter school bill have offered their endorsements. Sponsoring organizations include Campion’s organization and the League of Education Voters, together with a newly formed organization in this state, Democrats for Education Reform.

The campaign finance reports offer a further clue as to support. By the end of May the campaign had raised $386,000, most of it from three donors. The largest contributor was Gates, at $253,000. Also backing the campaign was Seattle venture capitalist Nick Hanauer, with $25,000, and Katherine Binder, president and CEO of EMFCO Holdings, at $100,000.

A Scrap Over Wording

Ballot title challenges can be taken two ways. They might reflect dissatisfaction with the way the state attorney general’s office chooses to summarize a ballot measure. But even if they provide a fair statement of the issue, a lawsuit certainly delays the date by which an initiative can hit the street. On I-1240, sponsors made a preemptive strike by suing to challenge a pair of innocuous words in the proposed title. That established a hearing would be held Friday. And then, as might have been expected, WEA filed a challenge of its own on Thursday, the final day on which challenges were permitted. But because a hearing was already set, its suit was combined with the other and the hearings were held concurrently. It was a strategy that saved perhaps a week.

WEA sought what amounted to a top-to-bottom rewrite of the ballot title as well as the ballot measure summary that appears on petitions. The union sought to call charter schools “experimental,” declare that the measure would “divert money from public schools,” and report that schools would be overseen by “a new state agency comprised of appointed partisan political charter schools proponents.”

At the hearing. WEA attorney Michael Gawley declared, “This is an experiment in 40 schools using our children as lab rats to see whether or not this provides improved academic performance.”

But proponents and the state attorney general’s office argued that the statements were not only factually false, they also might tend to give voters a nasty impression. An important point given that many voters make up their minds when they read the ballot. Said Peter Gonick of the attorney general’s office, “We do not believe that it is impartial and we believe that creates bias against the measure.” Harry Korrell, representing the sponsors, agreed, “It is more like campaign material than a fair and impartial summary of the essential elements of the measure.”

And when arguments were done, Sutton immediately ruled against WEA. She said, “Although those may be arguments that one has regarding the measure, they don’t meet the statutory criteria that I am bound to apply.”

A Battle Approacheth

You can count on a battle if the measure makes the ballot. WEA’s executive board already has voted to oppose the initiative. And that introduces a big wrinkle into this year’s campaign. It may not be easy for the union to match Bill Gates dollar for dollar, and every dollar the union spends in an effort to defeat the initiative is a dollar it can’t spend on this year’s gubernatorial race or legislative races, where it is traditionally a major player.

Decisions about campaign spending are premature, observed WEA spokesman Rich Wood – the initiative hasn’t made the ballot yet.

But he said, “It will be interesting to see who is going to pay for what will be a very expensive signature drive. The only way they can make the ballot is to pay a lot of money to paid signature gatherers. They don’t have grass-roots support.”

And the Wording

For the record, the final wording that will appear on the ballot reads:

“Statement of Subject: Initiative Measure No. 1240 concerns creation of a public charter schools system.

“Concise Description: This measure would authorize up to forty publicly-funded charter school open to all students, operated through approved, non-religious, non-profit organizations, with government oversight, and modify certain laws applicable to them as public schools.”

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  • Melissa Westbrook

    The WEA isn’t the only group to fight this.  There will be another organized group of legislators, parents and community members – you know, the very people the Yes on 1240 say they represent.

    Interesting facts about this initiative:

    - the push for the bill in the Legislature was for helping high-needs kids in failing schools.  Not now.  Now they say it’s about “choice.”  What happened to those high-needs kids?

    - And groups that will be providing services to high-needs students get some kind of “push” for their application but it’s not clear how.  The initiative says ANY type of school can be created so this initiative is not just to serve one group of students.

    - how come the Yes on 1240 website wants you to sign their petition and vote for this thing and yet, not a link to the initiative so that voters can read for themselves? What kind of group promotes an initiative but doesn’t want people to read it?   And where is your link to it?

    - strict accountability?  Read the initiative.  Kind of vague.  And speaking of accountability, the new Charter Commission – for those who want more bureaucracy at the state level – will not be accountable to anyone AND  there is no way to remove a member except to wait out their term.

    - non-profits can start charters but then farm out management and nearly everything else to a for-profit group

    - trigger law.  Do you know that under this initiative – ANY school, failing or high-performing – can be taken over by an approved charter and a petition signed by the majority of parents OR teachers?  Lock, stock and building, poof! neighborhood school gone just like that.  Now the holding district still owns the building (but the charter gets it rent-free and the district has to do major maintenance). 

    - levy money.  Any charter created before an education levy – operations or capital – is passed gets levy money.  And that capital levy money can go to any private building that a charter is housed in.  Your tax dollars to maintain a private building. 

    Want to read more – go to Seattle Schools Community Forum blog and read about it.

    Or, just Decline to Sign the petition for 1240.  We’ve said no three times and that should be enough.

     

    • guest

      - Should charter schools be created only for high needs kids?  And what’s wrong with giving parents and students “choice”?

      -Why would anyone want these schools to serve only one group of students?

      -Full text of the initiative is here:  http://stand.org/washington/take-action-washington-students/2012-election-endorsements/non-profit-public-charter

      -Is there any more accountability in our current public school system?  And talk about difficulty removing people from their positions. Do you know how difficult it is to remove a tenured teacher, regardless of how incompetent?

      -Most parents wouldn’t have a problem handing over a failing school to a charter school, but I seriously doubt parents would vote a high performing school into a charter school.

      -If a private building housing a charter school can get away with employing non union employees to maintain that building, I say go for it.  Less cost means more savings for taxpayers in the long run. 

      Our kids attended public schools which had fairly high rankings based on state and national test scores.  Even with that, we encountered tenured teachers who spent much of their class time discussing space aliens and UFO’s instead of science and teachers who filled a lot of their class time playing movie videos for the kids.  Granted, they’ve had some excellent teachers who really had a passion for teaching, but it shouldn’t be so difficult to weed out the ones who shouldn’t be there. This is a result of public employee unions having a lock tight grip on our public school system.  (An example of the kind of absurd logic in the existing system: Our kid’s senior class was blocked from painting the school halls as a gesture of appreciation to the school because they would be ‘taking union jobs’)

      Public schools are funded by our tax dollars.  The public has a right to demand excellence in the schools they are funding.  If that means putting control back into the hands of those they serve, then that’s what needs to happen.  The WEA’s function is to serve the best interests of their members.  And often,  those interests run counter to the best interests of the students they serve.

      • Melissa Westbrook

        Well, I’m not with the WEA so I don’t think you can lump all charter opponents into the union camp.

        Actually, it isn’t “hard” to remove a teacher but it is a process and one that takes time.  But when our high school principal came in, he looked around, saw the issues and got rid of two poor-performing teachers in a year.  It can be done.

        The issue with the Commission is (1) more bureaucracy at the state level (2) appointed by elected officials but not overseen and you can’t get rid of them.  How is that accountability?

        I point out the high-needs student issue because that is how the charter BILL was framed and now this initiative is being framed as choice.  Seems odd.

        Well, see if your school, failing or high-performing, was in a good building, a charter would like it.  One of their major issues is facilities costs and if they can take over a public school building, for free, that’s a great deal. 

        I think it would be entirely possible for a majority of teachers at any school to be convinced to change to a charter and that’s a much lower bar than a majority of parents.  Keep in mind that NO other conversion law, proposed or actual in this country, allows a majority of teachers to take over a school with a charter. 

        Other issues with the charter initiative:
        - the issue of teaching religion in what are called “ethnically themed” schools.  This has happened elsewhere in the country and indeed, the biggest charter group runs themed schools based on the country of Turkey.  60 Minutes had quite a revealing story on them recently.

        -

        The Washington State Supreme court says our existing schools are underfunded.  How is bringing a low-success system of more underfunded schools going to help?

        -

        A charter must be started by a non-profit but can then outsource management and nearly everything else to a FOR_PROFIT company. 

        -Charters are
        allowed to buy or lease any school building up for sale or lease, at or below market value.   Additionally, if a charter is located in a privately-owned
        building, taxpayer levy funds go to maintain that building.

         

      • Charlie Mas

        Parents and students already have choice. Nearly every district allows families to choose another school for their child and you always have the option of choosing a school in another district.

        “Is there any more accountability in our current public school system?” Yes. Our public schools are governed by school boards who are elected officials. They are accountable to the electorate. To whom are the owners of a charter school accountable?

        “Do you know how difficult it is to remove a tenured teacher, regardless of how incompetent?” Yes. I do. Good principals do it all the time. The real problem here is not the difficulty of the process but the laziness of the principals.

        “Most parents wouldn’t have a problem handing over a failing school to a charter school, but I seriously doubt parents would vote a high performing school into a charter school.” Wall Street seriously doubted that anything would go wrong with those mortgage-backed securities. The parents don’t have to vote to convert a school to a charter. The teachers can vote. You know, those teachers you don’t trust or respect.

        ” The public has a right to demand excellence in the schools they are funding.” Then demand it. Demand it from your school board. But you can’t demand it from a charter school. They aren’t accountable to you.