Washington News

The (Everett, WA) Herald
October 12, 2004
http://www.heraldnet.com/article/20041012/NEWS01/410120756&SearchID=73330859753508

Charter Schools Back on Ballot

By ERIC STEVICK, Herald Writer

For the third time in eight years, Washington's voters will decide Nov. 2 whether to allow charter schools. Referendum 55 gives voters a chance to either endorse or overturn a decision by the Legislature last spring to approve charter schools, which receive public funding but operate with a looser regulatory leash. Other charter school measures failed in 1996 and 2000.

While backers see charter schools as a chance for families to have greater choice in their children's education, opponents fear it will chisel away at an American cornerstone: the public school system.

In Washington, roughly $5,500 per student, money that normally goes to the local school, would follow the student to the charter school. The charter school would control the curriculum, instructional methods, calendar, and staffing.

Both sides point to conflicting studies and stories of successes and failures of charter schools nationwide. Much of the debate, however, is philosophical. "I see charter schools as the ultimate in school choice and as a way to force districts to offer" more options, said Carriann Alabastro, a Referendum 55 supporter. Alabastro moved from Everett to Seattle partly because she wanted more educational choices for her three children. As it stands, some districts are willing to offer more innovative programs than others, but charter schools would motivate all districts to be more flexible, she said.

The Washington Roundtable, an organization made up of top executives from many of the state's largest companies, supports charter schools, arguing it's another means to help students, particularly low-income minorities, in an age of increasing expectations. "It's not a panacea," said Steve Mullin, co-chairman of the statewide Approve 55 campaign and president of the organization. "It's another tool in the tool box to provide districts with ways to help students meet (academic) standards."

Nationally, 40 states permit roughly 3,000 charter schools that enroll about 750,000 students.

Opponents say charter schools are risky experiments that take resources from public schools. "We are opposed to the (referendum) because it harms public schools," said Barbara Mertens, assistant executive for the Washington Association of School Administrators. "There is no way you can take this money without negatively affecting the school or district."

Diana Martin Rudnick, a Lynnwood resident with two children with special needs, fears that charter schools could erode resources from public schools by siphoning off students. "I'm very grateful with what my kids have now," she said. "I just don't want to see the schools lose anything."

Cherryl Kostman, a Marysville parent who runs a day care business, said she will vote against charter schools after studying literature from both sides. She doesn't believe charter schools would be as accountable. She likes the chain of command in the existing system that leads to a district superintendent and an elected school board.

Referendum backers include the Association of Washington Business, the state Seniors Coalition, United Indians of All Tribes, and El Centro de la Raza, a statewide Latino social services organization. The Approve 55 campaign has raised nearly $3 million in cash with another $42,000 in in-kind contributions. Big contributors include John Walton, a Wal-Mart heir, $1 million; Donald Fisher of the Gap Inc., nearly $900,000; and Bill Gates, Microsoft chairman, $600,000.

Opponents include the League of Women Voters, the Washington State Labor Council, Washington Education Association, the Washington State Special Education Coalition, and the Washington State School Directors Association. The Protect Our Public Schools campaign opposing the referendum has raised more than $600,000 in cash and $200,000 in in-kind contributions. Most comes from national, state, and regional teachers unions. The biggest cash contributors are the National Education Association, $250,000; and Washington Education Association, $200,000.

Reporter Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446 or stevick@heraldnet.com.

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