Under Initiative 1240, local charter school is unlikely

September 25, 2012

By Lillian O'Rorke

On Nov. 6, people across the state will cast their vote whether to allow charter schools in Washington, and locals stand on both sides of the argument.

Supporters say the schools could pursue innovative educational techniques, free from most state regulation and without unionized teachers.

Opponents say charter schools have insufficient oversight and would drain money from traditional public schools.

“We have great schools, we have great teachers,” said Jodi Mull, an Issaquah High School parent who said she had no problem gathering signatures to get Initiative 1240 on the ballot. “Maybe it’s not going to help me in my community, but it will help others.”

Initiative 1240 would allow up to 40 charter schools to open in the state. Charter schools would be run by nonprofit organizations but would receive state funding. Much like traditional public schools, the money would be allocated per student. The schools would be tuition-free and open, space available, to whomever wants to attend.

These hybrid schools would be free from many of the rules and policies traditional schools have to follow. The difference could mean longer school days or specialized curriculum centering on things like sciences or the arts.

What to know

Read the initiatives, plus supporting and opposing arguments, in the 2012 General Election Voters’ Guide at www.secstate.wa.gov.

Those in favor of charter schools claim they will help at-risk students who are falling behind.

One of the main concerns is low graduation rates, which was 76.6 percent statewide in 2011, according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Issaquah had a graduation rate of 91 percent in 2011, so most local students don’t appear to be struggling. Area proponents say Issaquah isn’t a likely candidate for charter schools, but other districts might be.

“Our district really wouldn’t have schools that would be targeted,” said Alison Meryweather, a local education advocate involved with the Issaquah PTSA and Issaquah Schools Foundation. “We are tying to reach those kids that are in the achievement gap.”

Not everyone thinks charter schools are the silver bullet that will fix the problem of graduation rates.

“A lot of those districts that are persistently struggling are in rural communities with high English-learner populations. You are not going to get a charter there,” said Connie Fletcher, a member of the state school board who served on the Issaquah School Board for 16 years.

Fletcher, speaking as an individual, said the state is already making great strides with the new teacher/principal evaluation system, which is currently being done on one-third of the Issaquah district’s teachers.

“The charters that are successful have lots of different private money put into it,” she said. “Our schools can be successful if they are adequately funded.”

How would charter schools work?

The proposal for charter schools is not new. Forty-one states have passed different versions of the law, but so far, Washington has said no. Voters rejected the idea three times, in 1996, 2000 and 2004.

Under this year’s measure, any nonprofit corporation — except those that are sectarian or religious — could run a charter school if first approved by either the local school board or the Washington Charter School Commission, which would be created by I-1240.

The would-be agency — whose nine members would be appointed by the governor, the president of the state Senate and the speaker of the House of Representatives — raises a red flag for some.

“We don’t know what that state commission is like,” Fletcher said. “I’ve been in education a long time … I believe in the public education system and I believe in local control.”

Others say the schools could help.

“I was actually on the edge of this for a while … as a school board member, you have a vested interest in making it work,” Chad Magendanz said.

The Issaquah School Board member is also a candidate for the state Legislature. He said he was swayed after visiting three charter schools in the San Diego area.

“It was an eye opener, really talking to the kids, the teachers, the administrators,” he said.

By the numbers

There are two political action committees that oppose I-1240. Combined, People For Our Public Schools and No On 1240 have raised $248,613.

Their top donors are:

  • Washington Education Association teachers union — at least $150,000
  • Service Employees International Union Washington State Council — at least $50,000
  • Dorothy Neville (homemaker) — at least $1,300
  • Matt Loschen (retired) — at least $1,000
  • State Rep. Marcie Maxwell, D-Renton — at least $500

There is one registered committee that supports the initiative, Yes On 1240: Washington Coalition For Public Charter Schools. So far, it has raised $4,613,082. Its top donors are:

  • Bill Gates (cofounder of Microsoft) — at least $1 million
  • Mike and Jackie Bezos (retired parents of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos) — at least $1 million
  • Nicolas Hanauer (partner at Second Avenue Partners and an original investor in Amazon) — at least $975,000
  • Alice Walton (daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton) — at least $600,000
  • Paul Allen (cofounder of Microsoft) — at least $100,000

Source: Public Disclosure Commission

Magendanz said he realized school boards and their policies could be part of the problem. Charter schools would still be subject to many state and federal laws and regulations, like those that concern civil rights and health. Their students would have to take statewide assessments and meet state graduation requirements, but charter schools would be exempt from many rules that are applicable to regular school districts. The teachers at charter schools would not have to be members of a union.

“The main one is that they are getting out from under collective bargaining and district policies, it’s really on a case by case basis. I like that charters are not a one-size-fits-all system,” Magendanz said. “We are talking about 40 schools here. Given that 41 states have had the opportunity, it’s an opportunity for us to cherry-pick those programs.”

Money problems

Conversion charters — existing public schools authorized to switch to a charter format — and those approved by the local school board could get a portion of local levy dollars. Others could only receive funds from levies that were passed after the school started. Along with accepting private donations, the charter schools would also be eligible for state grants on the same basis as a school district.

Adding more mouths to feed to an already underfunded education system has some people concerned.

“Having sat on a school board and opened many new schools … there are major expenses that need to be undertaken just to get that school open,” said Barbara de Michele, who served on the Issaquah School Board from 1995 to 2003. “That money will be drained from the public school budget.”

But the recent state Supreme Court determination that Washington’s schools are underfunded is also part 1240’s supporters’ argument.

“Charter schools do not solve the need for additional dollars, it’s just allowing for what you do in the school day be different … sometimes it’s about a different curriculum or additional time with math and reading,” Meryweather said. “People think it’s privatization of public education, it’s not. It’s public education with another option for parents and students and teachers.”

Still, others remain on the fence.

“On the one hand, I see nothing wrong with them. I am all for choice,” said Kimberly Montague, an area mother. “On the other hand, there needs to be regulations. So I am up in the air on that one.”

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2 Responses to “Under Initiative 1240, local charter school is unlikely”

  1. Demian on September 27th, 2012 9:26 am

    When many schools are struggling due to insufficient funding, now is not the time to pull more dollars away from those schools and risk it with unproven charters that serve few.

  2. Dorothy on September 27th, 2012 10:40 am

    Why is it unlikely that Issaquah would get a charter school? There is nothing in the initiative to favor urban charter schools or those that might serve at-risk kids. In fact, if too many charter operators are approved at once, the selection of which ones open first is a lottery. And at the school level, enrollment is also done by lottery. Read the initiative. There are lots of charter schools nationwide that serve suburban affluent families. Don’t rely on what one hopes might happen, rely on what the actual law will say can happen.

    Even if Issaquah is spared, (and if one really likes charter schools, why should one be glad that Issaquah would be spared), the extra state level spending, the extra costs of adding new schools means every district will feel the effects when the state continues to underfund education, diverting funds to this separate system of new schools.

    1240 promises that a few students will win a lottery that might or might not benefit them. Trouble is, the rest of the state’s children will pay the cost. We need solutions that have the ability to serve every child in the state. Fully funding education is a proven solution.

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