Weak charter vote dilutes real mandate

The long campaign season is over. Some ballot issues — like I-502 and R-74 — were decisive victories.

But one issue continues to raise more questions than answers. I-1240, the charter schools initiative passed with less than 1.5 percent majority. It appears, for the first time in Washington’s history, we will have privately run, publicly funded charter schools — but with little mandate.

Wealthy benefactors of I-1240 spent more than 17 times the amount of the opposition campaign. Eleven million dollars, mainly from three donors, two from outside our state, funded dozens of ads statewide claiming charter schools would be the answer to all students being able to succeed. And yet the I-1240 results were incredibly close, even though the opposition spent zero on radio or TV ads.

How could that be? How could a race so one-sided in terms of monetary support and hence, information presented to voters, end up so close at the ballot box? How could half the voters in a state hungry for education solutions reject the one education item on the menu?

It’s simple: Washington voters knew that adding 40 charter schools would do nothing to address what parents, educators, business leaders and concerned citizens say is the most important thing to improve our education system: fixing our unstable and unreliable education funding system.

The funding crisis is real, and students, parents and educators across the state are shouldering the burden. Over the past three years our state Legislature has cut more than $2.5 billion from our public school system. Washington crams more kids into its classrooms than 46 of our 50 states. Our kids read outdated textbooks and prepare for 21st century jobs with outdated technology — or no technology at all. We’ve cut music, drama, visual arts, PE, higher-level math, science and foreign languages. We’ve eliminated so many teachers, librarians, nurses, counselors that students don’t receive the attention they need to learn and develop.

We all know this is unacceptable. More importantly, we know what we must do. Last January, in McCleary vs. State of Washington, the state Supreme Court determined that the Legislature had failed its constitutional duty to provide adequate funding for basic education for our kids. The justices took it a step further. They ordered the Legislature to fix the problem. Some estimates predict the price tag will reach $4 billion. At a minimum, it will cost $2.5 billion.

If we all agree the biggest problem facing our schools is funding, will the passage of I-1240 help or hurt? It will hurt — because it requires that Washington taxpayers slice the education pie in more pieces. I-1240 doesn’t fund itself. Millions per year will have to be diverted from our public schools in order to fund these new privately run charters. Setting up the new state charter school commission, more bureaucracy, will cost an estimated $3 million. This is an expenditure we cannot afford.

The final ballot box results prove that nearly half of Washington voters believe that charters are not the answer to quality education. And, instead of easing our education funding burden, the passage of I-1240 has potentially made it worse. Our governor and state Legislature must stay focused on the real charge of fully funding our public schools for all of Washington’s children.

Mari Taylor is President Elect of the Washington State School Directors’ Association and a current member of the Lake Stevens School Board.

Kay Smith-Blum is vice president of the Seattle School Board.

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