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Thursday, March 11, 2004 - Page updated at 12:32 A.M.
Legislators clear path for charter schools
By Linda Shaw
The Legislature voted yesterday to make Washington the 41st state to allow charter schools, the result of a decadelong effort by supporters that included two defeats at the ballot box.
Narrow votes in the Democrat-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate, with just one day left in the legislative session, led to passage of a bill that would authorize the creation of semi-autonomous public schools free of most regulations that govern other schools.
The bill now goes to Gov. Gary Locke, a strong charter-school supporter, who had said he wouldn't let lawmakers go home without passing it.
Proponents considered this bill a modest one, tailored to gain support among Democrats who fear charters could be no more than private schools in disguise.
The bill allows a maximum of 45 new charters in the next six years, with the majority reserved for those that serve mostly disadvantaged students. School boards also could convert existing schools into charters if they're falling short of the test-score goals set out in the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
"It's unbelievable," said state Rep. Dave Quall, D-Mount Vernon, who sponsored his first charter bill in 1995. A month ago, he said, he didn't think his measure had a prayer because it was controversial and because it was part of a package of four education bills whose fate were tied together.
Charters are publicly funded, privately run schools that first started in Minnesota in 1992. Today, there are close to 3,000 such schools across the nation, including 500 in California and nearly that many in Arizona.
Washington, however, had been one of 10 states without a charter law.
Bills have been introduced year after year in Olympia without success, and voters sank two statewide ballot measures one in 1996 and one bankrolled by billionaire Paul Allen in 2000. This year, the Seattle School Board also said it opposes them.
But charter schools have had strong supporters, too, including Locke, the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Charter schools take different forms in different states and are new enough that it's hard to draw conclusions about their success.
Here, they will be run by nonprofit organizations, and would be free from most public-school regulations, including those surrounding teacher hiring and union contracts, curriculum and length of the school day.
Students would still have to take state tests, however, including the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL). They must be sponsored by a local school district or, if refused, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
In a statement after the vote which was 51-46 in the House and 27-22 in the Senate Locke said the legislation "promotes 'outside-the-box' thinking that is sometimes needed to help struggling students meet our high academic standards."
The debate in both chambers yesterday included all the arguments made over the past 10 years for and against charters.
Proponents think they'll improve the system by offering more choices, higher-quality schools and allowing more innovation.
Charters aren't a panacea, they say, but a good tool that deserves a chance, especially as one way to help many students of color who, as a group, have scored lower on average than white and Asian counterparts.
"This is something that I've wanted to add to the education mix in our state for years," Quall said. "Now we'll get an opportunity to see if charter schools can do what we think they can do."
Opponents, including the state's largest teachers union, say that charters are private schools in disguise that weaken existing public schools by siphoning money to charters that have a mixed track record elsewhere.
They also argue that schools should be under the direct purview of locally elected officials, not private entities, for good accountability.
Charters generally will receive state money on a per-student basis, just like other public schools. Their sponsors could keep up to 3 percent to offset the costs of overseeing the administering of the charter.
Charles Hasse, president of the Washington Education Association, said it was hard to express how disappointed he is.
The Legislature, he said, "has chosen gimmicks over substance."
He said WEA members will continue to fight for continued investment in existing public schools especially small class sizes and well-qualified teachers.
Charters, he said, give "a foot in the door to those who would like to privatize public schools and turn them over to profiteers."
The WEA, which represents 76,000 teachers and other school employees, lobbied hard against the bill, making it hard for many Democrats who traditionally are their allies.
Eighteen Democrats supported the bill in the House, and two in the Senate.
Some critics question whether charters are legal under the state constitution, which calls for a "general and uniform system of public schools." They may mount a legal challenge, but backers aren't worried.
"I'm not concerned at all about the constitutionality," said Spady.
Charter supporters came close last year, the first year that the chairmen of the education committees in the House and Senate were both strong supporters.
Before that, the Senate committee was led by Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, who yesterday again argued, this time unsuccessfully, that the state should concentrate more on improving existing schools than starting something new.
"I'm sorry we're going to start a new system and not put our energies where they belong," she said.
This year, the charter bill was one of four whose fates were linked. The agreement forged between the House and Senate was to pass all of them, or none of them, Quall said.
The others included one that refines and clarifies the WASL and allows retakes of the 10th-grade test that will be required for graduation beginning in 2008; one that changes how schools receive extra money to help struggling students; and one that helps districts offset cuts in state and federal support by allowing them to collect a higher percentage of what local voters vote to pay in property taxes for schools.
Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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