Charter Schools, Education Tax Defeated
November 3, 2004
By JAKE ELLISON AND GREGORY ROBERTS, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Reporters
Voters last night soundly rejected measures that would have bailed out Washington's hard-pressed public education system and opened the door to charter schools.
Sales tax-raising Initiative 884 and charter school-creating Referendum 55 suffered lopsided defeats statewide, according to late returns.
Supporters and opponents of the education measures agreed that the election results put the issue of under-funded schools and colleges squarely on the doorstep of the Legislature.
"We built a coalition that was pretty unusual, and we served up a solution that it looks like the voters didn't buy," said Lisa Macfarlane, spokeswoman for the League of Education Voters. "I hope the Legislature and governor have a better idea."
Jamie Daniels of the League of Freedom Voters, the group opposing I-884, echoed Macfarlane's plea. “I truly hope the Leg will prioritize education. They need to start working on those reforms now.”
Critics said the initiative, which would have raised an estimated $1 billion a year, lacked accountability. Opponents also argued that raising the statewide sales tax from 6.5 percent to 7.5 percent would have hurt Washington's economy. “We have said from the beginning that I-884 was about the economy and government accountability,” Daniels said. “We didn't look at this as a referendum on prioritizing education.”
The defeat of the charter school referendum came as no surprise to Charles Hasse, president of the Washington Education Association. The teachers union spearheaded the effort to defeat the measure. “We're really ready to move beyond this issue and work with people who have different views on charter schools,” Hasse said.
Jim Spady, a longtime charter advocate, said that even though R-55 failed, the state's high school dropout rate of more than 30 percent can't be ignored. “We proposed charter public schools as a way to address this crisis,” he said. “If the voters decide that they don't want to address this problem with charter schools right now, the fact is the problem still needs to be addressed.”
Most educators backed I-884, which would have dealt out big bucks to every level of public education, from preschools and K-12 to colleges and universities. Some of those voters, however, strongly opposed R-55, concerned that charter schools would drain regular school budgets.
The measure aimed to reverse a 10-year slump in education spending and would have expanded preschools to serve an estimated 10,000 more low-income children. In K-12 schools, class sizes would have been reduced and teacher pay and training would have been increased. In the higher education system, 25,000 full-time enrollments in community colleges and universities would have been funded at a higher rate. The initiative also would have provided college scholarships to more students and boosted state spending on research at the University of Washington and Washington State University by up to $100 million a year.
Only 7,000 of Washington's 30,000 neediest preschool-age children get a jump on education. The K-12 system is struggling with the some of the highest student-teacher ratios in the country. More than 100,000 students have entered the system since 1993. The Higher Education Coordinating Board estimates the state will have to add more than 33,000 full-time positions in colleges by 2010 to keep the system struggling at status quo.
Supporters said charter schools also would have aided the state's struggling K-12 system by providing more choices for parents and fostering innovation. The measure stemmed from action by state legislators and Gov. Gary Locke last spring. It passed the Legislature but was suspended by a petition drive, spearheaded by the state teachers union. The critics had collected enough signatures to force the referendum vote.
R-55 would have made Washington the 41st state in the nation to allow charter schools. Those schools would be publicly financed and operate under a charter, or contract, with local or state education officials. The charter identifies a school's mission and educational plan. Charter schools typically operate free of many regulations that apply to conventional public schools, setting their own curriculums and schedules, for example, or hiring with a freer hand.
The Washington law would have authorized up to 45 new charter schools in the next six years. Only a non-profit, non-sectarian group could have received a charter. The law was designed to favor applicants seeking to target underachieving students.
They are a favorite cause of free-market advocates, and the campaign to approve the referendum attracted million-dollar contributions from Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates and Wal-Mart heir John Walton.
Registered voters last week expressed concerns about the cost of both education measures. Would R-55 really take money away from regular schools? Would I-884 hurt the state's tender economy?
"We're going to keep working at this," Macfarlane said. "We were not just interested in a campaign. We were interested in building a movement to built the best public schools in the nation. We're not going away."
P-I reporter Jake Ellison can be reached at 206-448-8346 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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