OP-ED:Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 17, 2004

On Nov. 2 Washington Voters Can Make Policy on Multiple Fronts


Next month, Washington voters will have the opportunity to help improve our public schools by approving Referendum 55. The referendum will give parents and local communities an effective tool to help underserved students get the education they deserve. It will let local school boards convert persistently low performing public schools into tuition-free, charter public schools. These schools help students excel through innovation, parental involvement, and accountability.

Many public schools in our state are doing well but too many kids are still falling through the cracks. Thirty percent of students drop out of our public schools; 50 percent of minority kids drop out. This is simply unacceptable. We must do better.

Referendum 55 will improve academic achievement without taking money from public school students or raising taxes. Funds will follow students who go to the charter public schools, just as funds follow students when they move to another public school.

Approving R-55 will actually increase funding for Washington schools because it will allow the state to tap into $200 million a year in federal funds earmarked exclusively for states that authorize charter public schools. This year alone, California received $25 million while Oregon received $5 million.

The type of public schools that would exist under R-55 are making amazing strides in helping underserved students in 40 other states. In the past few years, charter public schools in Colorado have outperformed comparable public schools in nearly every area, while serving high percentages of minority students in urban areas. In the Chicago area, 12 of 13 charter public schools are outperforming traditional public schools on standards-based tests and averaging an 83 percent graduation rate compared with the 62 percent rate of Chicago's other public high schools.

There are many more examples of how charter public schools across the country are giving underserved students an opportunity to learn and excel. It's time for Washington to join the rest of the country in improving public schools by approving R-55.

The referendum was carefully drafted by Democratic and Republican legislators to ensure it included strong local control, accountability, and achievement provisions. It requires that schools hire certified teachers and do not discriminate in admissions. These schools must prove they will meet or exceed the state's academic standards and provide a plan to help disadvantaged students. These schools must also demonstrate they are fiscally sound and must undergo regular audits of performance and operations.

The opponents are going to say a lot of things. But the real truth is that our state values education and we all know that we need to help all our children. We can't afford to listen to naysayers when we have such a serious problem with many of our public schools.

Approving R-55 will give Washington parents, teachers, and communities another tool to help them increase academic achievement for their kids and help solve the unacceptable dropout rate in our state. The referendum will ensure accountability and performance, will not take funds away from other public school students and will not raise taxes. Approving R-55 will bring millions of dollars of federal funds into our state to help ensure all our kids have the best possible opportunity to learn.

Supporters of R-55 include Bill Gates; Rep. Dave Quall, a Democrat who heads the House Education Committee; Professor Pat Wasley of the University of Washington School of Education; Sam Smith, past president of Washington State University; the Federal Way School Board; The Seniors Coalition; business groups; community groups; and parents and teachers throughout Washington state. Please join us in improving our public schools by approving R-55 on Nov. 2.

Rogelio Riojas is executive director of Sea Mar Community Health Centers. Steve Mullin is president of Washington Roundtable.

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