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Charter Schools Come Roaring Back as an Issue in This Year’s Campaign – Initiative Filed at Last Possible Second

Will Require Costly Lightspeed Effort to Gather Signatures by July 6

OLYMPIA, May 23.—Charter schools are back, with a surprise last-minute initiative filing Tuesday that seems certain to trigger one of the most expensive signature-gathering drives in state history. It also might change the calculations in this year’s legislative and statewide political races, pinning down the big-spending state teachers’ union and forcing it to burn through money that might otherwise have gone to Democratic candidates.

If backers manage to gather the required 241,153 signatures by the July 6 deadline, it will mark the fourth time since 1996 that Washington voters have been asked to vote for charter schools. The measure would allow as many as 40 private non-profit schools to be established, financed by public dollars that follow the student. The measure has not yet been assigned a number by the secretary of state’s office.

It is a popular crusade for education reformers and business groups, not to mention a fair percentage of the Legislature. It’s also a fight-to-the-finish cause for the Washington Education Association, which has spent heavily to defeat charter school measures in the past. That has a big implication for this election cycle. The 83,000-member union is one of the biggest supporters of Democratic campaigns, and the more the union spends to defeat the charter-school measure, the less it will be able to spend anywhere else. Already this cycle WEA has dumped $250,000 into an independent campaign to defeat Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna. It has another half-million in the bank. But the union may need substantially more than that to put up an even fight against the ballot measure. The initiative already has all the signs of a multi-million dollar effort. It’s going to take at least that much to get it onto the ballot in the few weeks that remain before the deadline.

Last year’s liquor-privatization initiative demonstrated it could be done. I-1183 was filed at roughly this point of the election calendar, on May 21, and once challenges to the ballot title were resolved in court, the campaign hit the mark in just 21 days. It wasn’t cheap. The measure’s leading backer, Costco Wholesale, paid huge bounties to signature gathering companies, about double the usual rate, a total $2 million. Exactly where the money for this one will come from, no one is telling, meaning the mystery won’t be solved until campaign finance reports are filed after the fact with the state Public Disclosure Commission. But Shannon Campion, executive director of Stand for Children, one of the reform groups behind the measure, says, “We wouldn’t be doing it if we didn’t think we could win it.”

Thwarted in Legislature

House Democratic Caucus Chair Eric Pettigrew launches drive for this year's charter school bill, flanked by a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers. But it died when House and Senate education chairs refused to bring it up for a vote.

Charter schools have been a dream of education reformers in this state for some 20 years, a means of establishing alternatives to failing public schools they say are hidebound by regulations regarding curriculum, budgets and perhaps most importantly in the political battle, the hiring and firing of teachers. Some 41 other states allow charter schools, with varying degrees of success. The schools operate outside of traditional school-district systems, generally in urban areas, and receive public funding based on enrollment. Teachers’ unions in this state and elsewhere maintain they siphon money away from established public schools. WEA led the charge against charter schools in two of this state’s three ballot-measure campaigns, the last in 2004. In that case, WEA pushed a referendum that managed to overturn a charter-school bill that had been passed by the Legislature.

This year, business and reform groups mounted a strong push for a new charter-school bill but were thwarted when Democratic chairwomen of the House and Senate education committees, strong allies of the teachers’ union, refused to allow their members to take a vote. The initiative is modeled on the bill. “We think the sentiment has changed, and we saw that in part this last session,” Campion said. “There was a lot of public support for it, and we saw lots of support from editorial boards across the state as well. So there is a sense that things are changing.

“Our opponents say we should keep doing the same thing and that the status quo is enough. We just don’t believe that. We believe the time has come for charter schools in this state, and that kids and families deserve to have the opportunities they do in other states.”

Coalition Forms Ranks

The initiative has the support of most of the players who backed the bill in the Legislature this year, the only notable absence being the Washington Roundtable, which has yet to take a formal stand. Many of the lawmakers who were part of this year’s bipartisan coalition declared their support in a joint press release Tuesday. Among them are House Majority Caucus Chairman Eric Pettigrew, D-Seattle, and Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, the House and Senate sponsors of this year’s bill. Also backing the initiative are Democrats for Education Reform, a national group with a newly formed Washington-state chapter, and the League of Education Voters. A league staffer is formally listed as the initiative’s sponsor.

The latter point offers a hint about the financing. The League was founded by Nick Hanauer, a prominent Seattle-area venture capitalist who has been a deep-pocketed supporter of progressive causes. Hanauer’s frustration with the majority Democrats in the Legislature became apparent this year. In an open letter that circulated widely after the charter-school bill was spiked, he accused Democrats of being “stooges for the teachers’ union” and said he would be talking election strategy with McKenna.

The Republican gubernatorial candidate supports charter schools; Democratic candidate Jay Inslee opposes them and has won WEA’s endorsement. State Republican chairman Kirby Wilbur, informed of the measure Tuesday, said the campaign can count on Republican support: “We’ll do what we can to help get it on the ballot,” he said. “It is time. It is way past time.”

No Stand Yet From Union

Though the initiative isn’t much different than the bill that WEA battled in the Legislature this year, the union has not yet taken an official stand. “We had heard rumors that something was in the works, but we haven’t seen it and don’t know anything about it at this point,” WEA spokesman Rich Wood said Tuesday afternoon. “The sponsors of this charter school intiative didn’t include any teachers or members of the WEA when they were writing it, and we haven’t had any time to analyze it or even read it.”

Not that the union can be expected to change its mind on the subject. Union opposition to charter schools is a matter of standing policy. “The thing is charter schools don’t meet the needs of most students, and voters in Washington have rejected them three times,” Wood said. “The research shows that most charter schools don’t perform any better than regular public schools, and a big percentage of them, almost 40 percent, perform worse than public schools. In light of the state Supreme Court decision earlier this year that the state is failing its constitutional paramount duty to fully fund public education, I don’t think voters are going to be interested in diverting money away from our existing schools into new, unproven charter schools.”

Experience is Best Teacher

Initiative backers say success of charter schools depends largely on the way the law is written, and Campion maintains that 20 years of national experience has shown Washington the way. The initiative would allow no more than eight charter schools to be established each year for the next five years, and they would be subject to strict oversight and accountability. Their performance in improving student outcomes would be measured and used to determine whether additional schools would be allowed.

“States with the strongest charter school laws are getting the best results,” Pettigrew said. “It makes no sense for Washington to continue to ban charter schools as an option to improve educational outcomes for students in our state.”

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