Parents, others weighing pros, cons of charter schools

MARYSVILLE — Jessie Atkins needed more information about the pros and cons of Initiative 1240, which would establish public charter schools in the state.

So, Atkins, president of the Marysville Special Education PTSA, was pleased when her organization decided to host a debate last week between two Seattle-based representatives of the Washington Coalition for Public Charter Schools and two Snohomish County teachers, speaking on behalf of the opposition, People for Our Public Schools.

“As a parent of a special needs child and another who is behind in math, I wonder how charter schools could benefit my kids,” Atkins said. “I am interested in creativity in the classroom.”

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Washington currently is one of only nine states that don’t allow public charter schools. This is the fourth time in 16 years that the idea of public charter schools has been floated before the voters. In three previous elections, charter schools were rejected. This time around, however, proponents say the initiative is better written, includes better oversight and is nationally recognized for its organization, strength and depth.

If approved, Initiative 1240 would require the state to allow the establishment of up to 40 taxpayer-funded charter schools, permitting eight a year over a five-year period.

The idea is that low-income students who fall through the cracks, students who are learning to speak English, children who struggle academically or who are at risk of failure or dropping out of traditional public schools would be given priority to study in charter schools run by nonprofit, non-religious organizations. Proponents of the measure say it would allow charters — which could include conversions of existing schools to charter status — to be free of some state regulations in order to allow for flexibility in curriculum and customized learning.

Local school boards could authorize and oversee charter schools. If school boards don’t give their OK, the charter schools could be authorized and overseen by a state commission of appointed, charter-friendly members.

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That’s one of the changes that bothers opponents.

“We elect people to govern and oversee our tax money, but this measure essentially would give public money to private interests, however nonprofit, with the potential of no oversight by publicly, democratically elected officials,” said Barbara Mertens, a retired educator, education lobbyist and a leader in the last statewide effort to defeat charter schools. “Society has failed our children. It is clear that our lawmakers have failed to fully fund public education, which is their constitutional mandate. The charter schools would benefit only a portion of our students. Taking money away from public schools when we don’t even know how to fund basic education for all students is abhorrent.”

Mertens isn’t taking a formal role in opposing this year’s initiative. No fan of teachers unions, Mertens said the people who commit to teaching at public schools can, if given the chance, make the difference between students graduating or dropping out.

“Teachers have to deal with the fallout of No Child Left Behind and all of its (ramifications), and then the first programs always cut are the alternative schools,” Mertens said. “Let the teachers do their damn jobs!”

Mari Taylor, a longtime school board director in the Lake Stevens district, said the intention of the initiative is good. Taylor isn’t so much opposed to charter schools as she is angry about state cuts to education. It’s estimated that establishing the state charter school commission would cost about $3 million alone, and that’s money that would be taken away from running state-funded public schools, she said.

The thing about the initiative that especially bothers Taylor, she said, is that it isn’t clear that I-1240 truly will benefit only at-risk students.

“The language of the initiative doesn’t preclude the establishment, say, for example, of a French language school on Mercer Island,” Taylor said. “Do we want to fund that? And how many parents of at-risk students have the time and money to do what it takes to establish a charter school?”

Jared Kink, a Mill Creek parent, a Jackson High School teacher and a union activist, said he is concerned that charter school campaign funding by such people as Microsoft founder Bill Gates could sway the vote.

“It feels like the millionaires are buying this law. It’s distracting,” Kink said. “What we really need are smaller classes, more teachers and salaries that attract the most brilliant of university students.”

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Mary Lou Evans of Mill Creek recently was elected president of the Jackson High School PTSA. Evans has three children, one in elementary school, one in middle school and one in high school. None of them need a charter school, but many of the kids with whom she comes into contact could benefit from what the initiative would provide, she said.

“My kids are doing well in school and being served well by the Everett School District,” Evans said. “But you always see other kids struggling. I know the district is trying and the teachers are working hard, but why not give kids a different opportunity?”

More than 14,000 students in Washington state leave school without graduating, Evans said.

“That’s just wrong. There is no way to succeed in this world without a high school education. We need ways to change curriculum to meet kids’ needs,” she said. “Charter schools, which would be vetted well before being established, would not take money away from traditional schools. The public money allotted for each kid would just follow those who attend public charter schools.”

Many charter schools across the country have figured out the way to keep students in school and help them go on to higher education, said Shannon Campion, a Seattle parent and a spokeswoman for the Initiative 1240 campaign.

The initiative was written following the best methods being used by the most successful charter schools in the country, she said.

“Public charter schools in this state would have strict accountability and oversight. They would go through a rigorous authorization process, including public forums, and be required to undergo evaluations,” Campion said. “And, as far as local control, the ultimate control is for parents to be able to chose the school that best fits their children’s needs. This is about doing what is right for kids.”

If voters approve the initiative, the state will arguably have the best charter school program in the nation, Campion said.

“I would ask the opponents of this, what do they know that millions of satisfied charter school parents around the country do not,” she said. “Until we don’t have any students dropping out of high school in this state, we need to embrace proven solutions like public charter schools for our students.”

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At the debate Thursday in Marysville, charter school proponent Lisa Macfarlane of Seattle told the audience that she had switched sides on the issue.

“I would not do this if I thought it would harm our current school system. We are not bashing public schools. We still need to work with the state to make sure it fully funds education,” said Macfarlane, who has worked in the juvenile justice system. “We also need to acknowledge the costs to our society when kids drop out of school. We need to provide more options for at-risk kids”

Mukilteo elementary school teacher Mark Mains, a parent whose children attend Brier Terrace Middle School, told the special education parents group that handicapped students are not specifically named as being at-risk students in the initiative.

“There is no question that all students need to be given opportunities and a good education,” Mains said. “But I-1240 does not address every child. At best a small portion of students will benefit. I have parents who can’t show up for conferences because they work two jobs. How are they going to advocate for their children and establish a charter school?”

Jessie Atkins, the president of the Marysville parent group said she still isn’t completely certain how she will vote on the charter school initiative when her ballot arrives in the mailbox this week.

“The forum gave me more to think about. I could be a proactive mom who could get a charter school going, but I wonder how that would benefit all students in Marysville,” Atkins said. “No matter what happens with this, people need to do more to support public schools, whether they volunteer in the classroom or help with funding issues. We need to rally for the kids.”

Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427;

More info

Yes on 1240: Washington Coalition for Public Charter Schools,

No on 1240: People for our Public Schools,

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