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Originally published Friday, July 6, 2012 at 11:17 AM

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Charter schools petition nets 350K ballot signers

Supporters of charter schools turned in more than enough signatures Friday in their efforts to put the initiative on the November ballot in Washington state.

Associated Press

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SEATTLE —

Supporters of charter schools turned in more than enough signatures Friday in their efforts to put the initiative on the November ballot in Washington state.

Using paid and volunteer signature gatherers, backers collected about 350,000 signatures for Initiative 1240 in just 18 days. A ballot initiative needs about 242,000 valid signatures to qualify, and must be approved by the Secretary of State's office.

Now the work begins to explain the idea and persuade voters it will be good for students. State voters previously rejected charter schools in 1996, 2000 and 2004.

The campuses offer options for parents frustrated with regular public schools. Some research have found these independent public schools are especially good at helping minority and low-income students improve their learning, close the achievement gap and head to college.

The state's largest teachers union says the privately run, publicly funded schools take money from traditional public schools and have not been shown to do a better job at improving student achievement.

Other opponents, including Gov. Chris Gregoire, many lawmakers and gubernatorial candidate Jay Inslee, say Washington has lots of innovative schools and welcomes more creativity in the classroom.

Supporters say parents should decide and the state should take what was learned elsewhere by offering only types of charter schools that have shown to improve achievement, making sure the oversight is excellent, and quickly shutting down the schools that aren't working.

The coalition of education reform groups bringing charter schools back to the ballot say the initiative was written with those ideas in mind.

Robin Lake, director of the University of Washington's Center on Reinventing Public Education, and a national expert on charter school research, said a law is an important starting place for charter school quality, but there's no guarantee that every school will be excellent.

"It takes commitment and on-the-ground work after the law is implemented," she said.

Finding a balance between regulations and freedom for creativity helped lead charters to success in other places. Lake cited success stories in Denver, New York City and New Orleans, and noted failures in states such as Arizona, which she says has weak oversight and accountability.

Lake said this proposal is big on accountability, starts out slow with a maximum of 40 charters over five years, limits who could authorize a new school, would force the closure of unsuccessful schools, allows only nonprofit operators, and prioritizes proposals that would serve economically and academically disadvantaged students.

Some research shows charter schools have been either OK, good or great for students in 41 other states and the District of Columbia. But a study of the impact of the charter school movement from Stanford University also found about half of charter schools were no better than traditional public schools, a quarter were worse and a quarter improved student achievement.

The results were different when schools were judged state-by-state, instead of across the country because individual state laws can be matched with their results, Lake said.

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Contact Donna Blankinship on Twitter at https://twitter.com/dgblankinship

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