Washington News
theseattletimes.com, May 22, 2012

Advocacy groups file initiative to put charter schools on November ballot

By Brian M. Rosenthal

Maybe a fourth time will be the charm.

A coalition of education advocacy groups on Tuesday started the process of once again asking voters to allow charter schools in Washington state.

The groups, led by the League of Education Voters, filed a ballot initiative in the hopes of forcing a November vote on the free but independent public schools, which are allowed to use unconventional techniques and hire nonunion employees.

But the late timing of the filing means that once the initiative's wording is finalized — a process that takes at least two week — the groups will have to hurry to collect nearly 250,000 valid signatures by the July 6 deadline.

Dave Ammons, a spokesman for the Secretary of State's Office, called the late filing very unusual.

But coalition leaders, who expect to be well-funded, expressed confidence.

"We know it's a tight time frame. We'll do a combination of paid and volunteer signature-gathering," said Shannon Campion, executive director of the Washington chapter of Stand for Children, which supports the initiative. "We're going to qualify this measure."

Charter schools exist in all but nine states, but they've been voted down here in 1996, 2000 and 2004. A bill to legalize them surfaced in this year's Legislative session but ultimately did not come up for a vote.

Since then, advocacy and business groups have been focused on the possibility of an initiative, commissioning two polls showing that a majority of voters support charter schools.

The details of the initiative are similar to those in the bill considered by the Legislature this session:No more than 40 charters would be established and approved by the state over a five-year period. Priority would be given to charters that serve at-risk students or students from low-performing public schools.

Only nonprofit organizations would be able to run them, and students would be selected by lottery.

Like at other schools, the charters would be funded based on student enrollment. Annual reviews by the state of the schools' performance would be required.

The initiative has the support of state Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, and Rep. Eric Pettigrew, D-Seattle, among other lawmakers.

"This measure is a very reasonable and carefully thought-out approach to bringing innovative solutions to our public schools and improving the quality of education we provide to all students in Washington," Litzow said in a news release.

But Rich Wood, a spokesman for the state teachers union, criticized charter-school proponents for not consulting teachers before filing the initiative. While the union, called the Washington Education Association, has not yet taken a position on this initiative, it has fought hard against prior attempts to legalize charters.

Wood pointed to research showing that many charters perform no better than regular public schools, and some perform worse.

"Why on Earth would we start new, experimental schools and divert money away from our existing public schools when we're not fully funding those?" Wood asked. "We need to invest in the great innovative schools that we already have."

If the advocacy groups get the signatures, the charter-school issue will join a November ballot already expected to be crowded with high-profile presidential and gubernatorial races, and initiatives regarding legalization of same-sex marriage and marijuana usage.

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.


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