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Originally published February 26, 2012 at 7:52 PM | Page modified February 26, 2012 at 7:52 PM

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Groups consider trying to put charter-school initiative on ballot

As prospects for a bill allowing charter schools dims in the Washington Legislature, some in the so-called "education reform" movement are considering compromise options or again asking the voters about it.

Seattle Times education reporter

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With a proposal to introduce charter schools into Washington still stalled in the Legislature, those seeking to shake up the state education system are considering other avenues, including again taking the issue to the ballot box, several leaders of the so-called "education reform" movement said last week.

The leaders said they prefer to work with lawmakers on a compromise that would allow for at least a handful of charters — public and free but independent schools that use unconventional techniques. But resistance from the Legislature's controlling Democratic Party has made that increasingly unlikely as the session nears its conclusion.

"Because the teachers union and (Democratic) leadership won't consider lifting Washington's ban on charter schools, there are some rumblings of an initiative," said Lisa Macfarlane, state director of Democrats for Education Reform, a political-action committee.

Macfarlane and others, especially in the business community, support charters because their unorthodox methods sometimes help poor and minority students, who struggle in normal schools.

But some note that many charters perform the same as or worse than traditional public schools. And others worry about charters' ability to hire nonunion employees or partner closely with outside organizations.

Almost all states already allow charters. But in Washington, voters have rejected them three times, in 1996, 2000 and 2004.

Supporters believe things could be different this time around.

A poll released Thursday by the Washington Policy Center, a business group that supports charters, and conducted by Moore Information, a conservative pollster, found that 60 percent of state residents support changing the law to allow for charter schools. Only 25 percent of the interviewees opposed it. The margin of error was plus or minus 5 percentage points.

But the state teachers union, which opposes charters, pointed out that the 400-person telephone poll didn't define charters or give any facts about their success rate; instead, it said only that most states allow them.

"There's no way this classic push poll accurately reflects what Washington voters think," said Rich Wood, a spokesman for the union, called the Washington Education Association.

Meanwhile, negotiations are ongoing in Olympia.

Several conservative Democrats want approval of monitored public charters to be included as part of a budget deal, but it's unclear if they have enough momentum to get there, especially because liberals already have conceded on a bill mandating stricter teacher-evaluation systems.

Recently, some have floated a compromise centered on a small, controlled number of charters as pilots.

Regardless, members of the movement seeking changes say it's time for action.

"Those serious about moving the issue forward should put all the game pieces on the board and look at the best way to succeed for the long run," said Chris Korsmo, CEO of the League of Education Voters.

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

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