Washington News

The Tacoma News Tribune
June 22, 2004

Measure Puts Charter School Plans on Hold

By: DAVID WICKERT; The News Tribune

Proposals for charter schools in Eatonville and Federal Way apparently are on hold until voters decide the fate of Referendum 55 in November.

Though advocates have proposed at least three South Sound charter schools, their applications can go nowhere until voters decide the fate of the referendum, which apparently has enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot.

Charter schools advocates say they're frustrated that their efforts might be thwarted just as they were gaining momentum.

"There's a lot of students who will not be helped in the next year," said Brock d'Avignon, curriculum director for Desert Sands High School in California, which hopes to open a school in Federal Way or another nearby district.

But opponents say charter schools will take resources from existing public schools and that the Legislature ignored the will of voters when it approved charter schools earlier this year.

"The voters have said no (to charter schools) twice," said Catherine Ahl of the League of Women Voters of Washington, co-chairwoman of the referendum campaign.

Referendum 55 will ask voters to decide whether the charter schools bill approved this year should become law. A "yes" vote would permit charter schools in Washington, while a "no" vote would overturn the law and put an end to charters before they begin.

Charter schools are independent public schools that receive state funding but are largely exempt from state education rules. Supporters say such flexibility will allow the schools to provide innovative instruction to children who do not perform well in traditional public schools. The schools are operated by nonprofit groups that must apply to local school boards for sponsorship.

Lawmakers approved a plan to create up to 45 charter schools over the next six years, plus others converted from existing public schools. But that plan is on hold because of Referendum 55.

Supporters earlier this month submitted about 153,000 signatures to get the measure on the ballot, far more than the roughly 100,000 needed to qualify. The secretary of state's office has not yet validated the signatures.

If Referendum 55 does qualify for the ballot, charter schools will remain on hold until after the election.

If voters approve them, at least three proposals for South Sound charters may proceed.

Shelley Flippen will expand her Montessori preschool program in Eatonville this fall, adding grades one through three. She hopes to convert the school to a charter school because public funding would allow her to serve more special education students. She said she can offer them more one-on-one instruction than existing public schools.

"The teachers (in existing schools) are doing the best job they can," Flippen said. "But they have huge class sizes."

Flippen has submitted a charter application to the Eatonville School District. But the state superintendent's office has informed districts they cannot act on such applications while the charter schools law is suspended.

Desert Sands' d'Avignon plans to submit a charter application to the Federal Way School District. But that application also will be in limbo.

Desert Sands serves 1,100 students at campuses in Palmdale and Lancaster, Calif. Students there learn on their own time, but keep in regular touch with teachers and receive tutoring in small groups.

"You're helping them stand on their own two feet," d'Avignon said. "This is the way learning is done for the rest of your life."

Another charter schools advocate is shying away from specific proposals until voters decide whether to permit them. The San Francisco-based Knowledge Is Power Program has looked at Federal Way and other districts and hopes to open a school here in 2005.

Knowledge is Power spokesman Stephen Mancini said that timeline is still possible if voters embrace such efforts.

"The future of charter schools is in the hands of the voters," Mancini said.

Opponents say charter schools will take money away from existing public schools at a time when resources are scarce. Ahl, the referendum co-chairwoman, said the Legislature should address problems with existing schools before creating "a separate school system."

Ahl said charter schools will not be directly accountable to elected officials. And she said the Legislature has ignored the will of the voters, who rejected charter schools in 1996 and 2000.

The Washington Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, is the driving force behind Referendum 55, though other groups also support the measure.

WEA President Charles Hasse said the record of charter schools does not indicate they are any more effective at raising student test scores or lowering dropout rates than traditional public schools.

"You can certainly find shining examples of charter schools," Hasse said, "just as you can find shining examples of public schools."

David Wickert: 253-274-7341

(Published 12:01AM, June 22nd, 2004)

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