Washington News

The King County Journal
June 9, 2004

Charter schools delay is likely

by Nora Doyle, Journal Reporter

Standing outside of Safeco Field before a Mariners game, hanging out at the Northwest Folklife Festival and having dinner with friends all became occasions for former Bellevue teacher Peter Bogdanoff to get a job done.

Over the last few weeks, Bogdanoff has been intent on helping to gather the signatures needed to possibly head off a new charter school law from taking effect.

Charter schools, small, independent schools run with public money, were voted into law by the state Legislature in April, and the law says that people may begin to apply for charters Thursday.

But by Tuesday, members of the Washington Education Association, the largest teachers union in the state, had collected about 119,000 signatures to put Referendum 55 on the November ballot.

Forcing a referendum takes about 100,000 valid signatures of registered voters. Referendum petitions are due to the secretary of state today.

Typically, a quarter or more of the signatures in such campaigns are invalid for one reason or another, so getting on the ballot requires far more than 100,000 raw signatures.

If approved by the voters, Referendum 55 would block any new charter schools from starting up this year and prevent the state from collecting federal grant money earmarked for such schools.

Paid signature gatherers collected about 16,000 signatures for petitions, according to Kevin Teeley, president of the Lake Washington Education Association.

Charter school advocates denounced the use of paid petitioners to force the delay and the vote.

``We're going to lose millions of dollars that otherwise would have gone to help kids, and we're going to lose time,'' said Jim Spady, head of the Education Excellence Coalition. ``For the WEA, it's about union dues. They're the ones that are skimming the taxpayer dollars that are meant to help kids.''

It won't be the first time voters have gone to the polls to have their say on charter schools. In 1996 and 2000, charter school initiatives were rejected by voters.

Those two initiatives are the reason that Bogdanoff, a social studies curriculum coordinator and former teacher with the Bellevue School District, says the new charter school law doesn't make sense.

``The public is not thrilled by charter schools in Washington state,'' he said.

He and Cami Kiel, a teacher at Renton's Hazen High School, say that the state should invest its money in existing public schools.

``I think that the state has an obligation to provide funding for the public schools that we have,'' Kiel said. ``That's where they need to spend the money.''

Rogelio Riojas is not so sure. As the executive director of Sea Mar Community Health Center, a nonprofit agency that provides health services to low-income Latinos around King County, Riojas is interested in starting a charter school in the Highline School District in south King County for a small group of children who are primarily Spanish-speaking.

Sea Mar runs a state program for preschoolers, but Riojas finds that once those children enter kindergarten, it's not long before they are having trouble with their school work, largely due to language barriers.

``We believe they fall behind from day one and never catch up,'' Riojas said.

He hopes to create a charter elementary school that will use both Spanish and English to better prepare students for junior high and high school, thus giving them a better chance of getting a high school diploma.

Riojas is not unsympathetic to the cause of the WEA.

``I think there is a point to be made by the teachers,'' he said, but many public schools in Washington don't do an adequate job educating the Latino community. There should be an alternative way to educate children who are not served well by existing schools, he said.

While charter schools are not for everyone, he thinks they could help some children, and he hopes the referendum fails. Riojas has not approached Highline School Board with a proposal yet, but hopes to start talks in the fall.

The charter school law adopted by the Legislature would allow 45 new charter schools over the next six years. It would also allow school districts to convert an unlimited number of failing public schools into charter schools or -- in cases of severely failing schools -- authorize the state superintendent of public instruction to force public schools to convert.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Nora Doyle covers education. She can be reached at nora.doyle@kingcountyjournal.com or 253-872-6726.

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