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Wednesday, August 29, 2012 - Page updated at 10:00 p.m.

Charter-school debate's 4th round no less intense

By Brian M. Rosenthal
Seattle Times staff reporter

As the charter-school debate heats up once again, expect supporters to argue the initiative on the ballot this time around is a whole lot different from versions that have been rejected in the past.

For the most part, it isn't.

Initiative 1240, which would allow a limited number of public charter schools in Washington state, is similar in many ways to the measures defeated in 2000 and 2004, although it would allow for fewer schools and provide slightly tighter controls.

What is different this time around are the political realities surrounding the issue — though it's unclear whether that new backdrop will help the initiative or hurt it.

Once derided as experimental, charter schools have become increasingly common nationwide, likely helping to demystify them. The general sentiment about regular public schools, meanwhile, is that many are still not doing enough to educate all students.At the same time, though, a recent state Supreme Court decision has shifted much of the discussion about public education here away from changing it to increasing its funding.

Proponents of the free but independent schools are well-funded, having raised some $3 million just to gather signatures to get on the ballot. Opponents will rely on the influence of the state teachers union and a forceful anti-charter spokeswoman, Seattle education blogger Melissa Westbrook, who was named this week as head of the "No on 1240" effort.

The campaign is expected to be intense because of what each side believes is at stake.

Funded like regular public schools but largely exempt from the laws that govern them, charter schools are considered an important tool by those seeking to shake up the public-education system — self-described reformers who believe the system is failing the poorest students and that one solution is giving parents more choice in how their children are educated.

But to many opponents, charter schools are an assault on public education itself. Critics are concerned about research showing charter-school performance is inconsistent, and they're worried about ties between charters and business groups.

That charters can hire nonunion teachers has only deepened the intense feelings around them.

To some it's a plus because of the power that teachers unions wield in the traditional public-education system. But others view union protections as critical, and the unions are sensitive to attacks on those protections.

History

The effort to bring charters to Washington began in earnest in 1996, four years after the opening of the first such school in Minnesota.

The original proposal here was unpopular because it would have allowed an unlimited number of charters while requiring little accountability for their academic performance. The Legislature soundly rejected the idea, and a subsequent ballot measure was overwhelmingly defeated.

Over the next four years, various lawmakers pushed scaled-back versions, introducing school limits and safeguards, but were ultimately unsuccessful.

In 2000, Initiative 729 was viewed as a likely winner after receiving $3 million from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Yet it, too, failed, falling just short despite a lack of active opposition from the teachers union.

Charter supporters then turned back to the Legislature and in 2004 persuaded lawmakers to pass a charter-school bill.

But that time teachers mounted a vigorous opposition campaign focused on the danger of diverting money away from traditional schools.

Microsoft's other co-founder, Bill Gates, financed the pro-charter side of Referendum 55, but voters handily sided with the opponents.

Supporters have mostly laid low since then — until another unsuccessful effort in the Legislature this year led to the ballot initiative.

The main funders this time? Gates, Allen and a handful of other technology executives.

Initiatives

Those pushing this year's measure emphasize that it's not a replica of the previous versions, saying it calls for more accountability and oversight than ever before.

They point to the fact that Initiative 1240 would create a nine-member charter-school commission to judge applications from organizations seeking to start a charter school.

Traditional school districts would be able to approve and oversee charters only if they themselves apply to the state for that authority.

"This is a high level of accountability and oversight, and that's really important," said Shannon Campion, an initiative spokeswoman. "And it wasn't in the 2004 law."

Under past proposals charter schools would have been approved and overseen mostly by the school districts, although the 2004 measure also gave that authority to the state superintendent of public instruction, and the 2000 measure gave it to universities.

There are other differences, too.

I-1240 would allow fewer schools — 40 over five years, compared with 45 in six years (2004) and 80 in six years (2000).

And it is more detailed, as evidenced by its 39-page length.

Still, I-1240 uses much of the same language and is structured the same as the 2004 measure, which was largely based on the 2000 initiative.

And when it comes to the operational nuts and bolts — the types of charters that would be permitted and how they would actually operate — the three are almost identical.

All three measures were written to allow two types of charter schools — newly formed ones and "conversion charters" in which parents or teachers vote to turn a standard public school into a charter school.

Only not-for-profit, nonreligious groups could apply to run either type. The schools would operate on five-year, renewable contracts. Application preference would be given to charters with plans for serving disadvantaged students, though admission to the schools would, if necessary, be decided by lottery.

Approved charters would be exempt from all but a few state laws governing public education. Teachers would be able form a union, but would not be required to do so.

The schools would have to issue performance reports and provide audits.

They would be allowed to contract out most operations, including to for-profit groups, and they would have rights to bid on property being sold by traditional school districts.

Charters would be funded the same as standard public schools, and they'd get rights to some levy dollars.

Little difference

Charter-school opponents don't see much difference between Initiative 1240 and the measures they've already helped defeat.

And the parts that are different, they believe, won't be too popular with voters.

Westbrook, the opposition leader, said some voters may be uncomfortable with creating a charter commission, a powerful new state bureaucracy whose members would not be required to have education experience.

State teachers-union officials, meanwhile, said voters also may not like the new details surrounding conversion charters. While the previous measures were vague about what exactly it would take to convert a traditional public school into a charter, I-1240 says all that's needed is support from half the school's parents or teachers.

"That part's frightening," said Lucina Young, the union's top lobbyist.

Political realities

Both sides agreed that political realities surrounding the issue have shifted since the last go-round.

Initiative supporters note that in the years since charter schools were last on the state ballot, their numbers across the country have nearly doubled, with some 6,000 charters now operating in 41 states. That should make voters more accepting, they say.

"Charter schools haven't been on the ballot in eight years," said Steve Mullin, president of the Washington Roundtable, a business group that supports I-1240, "and in terms of public policy and politics, eight years is a really long time."

But I-1240 opponents point to a different factor: the recent Supreme Court decision that the Legislature needs to put billions more into funding basic public education. They expect voters to be wary of siphoning off money for charters because of that decision.

"That can't just be dismissed," said Rich Wood, a teachers-union spokesman.

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

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