Washington News

The Seattle Times
Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Charter Schools Fail; State Law Is Overturned by Wide Margin

By LINDA SHAW, Seattle Times Staff Reporter

For the third time in eight years, Washington voters rejected an effort to allow charter schools in the state.

Opponents of charter schools put Referendum 55 on the ballot in an effort to repeal a bill that Gov. Gary Locke signed into law last spring.

That law would allow as many as 45 new charter schools to open in the next six years, run by nonprofit organizations under contract, or “charter,” with a local school district or with the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. Existing public schools deemed as “needs improvement” by the state or federal government could convert to charter schools as well.

If the referendum had passed, the law would have remained in place. Returns last night indicate the law has been overturned by a wide margin.

Still, businessman Jim Spady, an avid charter-school advocate, promised that “we'll be back with cost-effective, innovative proposals as a way to help these kids who fall through the cracks of the system.”

Catherine Ahl, education chair of the League of Women Voters of Washington, said she hoped this vote will be the last. “Hopefully, this time the Legislature will understand this is the will of the people, and knock it off,” Ahl said.

Voters in Washington had rejected charter schools in 1996 and 2000. A law the Legislature passed last spring was more modest than previous proposals, but the state's largest teachers union, the Washington Education Association (WEA), launched an effort to get rid of it. Charles Hasse, president of the WEA, said his organization was ready to work with the measure's supporters on reforms to reduce class sizes and broaden access to pre-school.

Referendum 55 campaigns have been high priced. Supporters raised roughly $3.9 million, including about $3 million from a handful of rich people: Microsoft founder Bill Gates; Don Fisher, a co-founder of the Gap, Inc.; and John Walton, of the family that started Wal-Mart.

Opponents raised about $1.3 million, with most of the money coming from the WEA and its parent organization, the National Education Association.

The race has drawn interest from outside the state, because of a national debate over charter schools and school choice. More than 3,000 have been launched in nearly 40 states.

Supporters argue that charter schools allow innovation because they are free from many regulations that constrain public schools. They also argue that charter schools are more accountable because if they don't perform well, parents will remove their children or districts will revoke the charters. The Washington law gives priority to charters that have a mission of serving children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Opponents say charters shift scarce education funds to a new school system that at best performs equally as existing public schools. They also contend that charter schools are less accountable because the local school boards don't have direct control.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com. Staff reporter Sanjay Bhatt contributed to this report.

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