Charter schools debate centers on public education

By ERIC STEVICK

Herald Writer

When former state schools superintendent Judith Billings was first approached about endorsing the charter school initiative on November’s ballot, she was prepared to decline emphatically.

"If this is a bash-public-schools one, forget it," she told the recruiter.

Billings, like two-thirds of Washington’s electorate, voted against a charter schools initiative four years ago. She felt that initiative would hurt public schools, and she was troubled by the negative tone of the campaign.

Four years later, Billings is a convert, one of eight members of the Initiative 729 leadership committee pushing for publicly paid, independently run schools.

Her reasoning: The initiative, which includes sponsorship of charter schools by school boards and universities, is better crafted with more safeguards and better accountability, while still providing a forum to encourage innovative instruction in the classroom.

Whether others share Billings’ perception and change their votes won’t be known until the Nov. 7 general election.

The initiative is more "mainstream," according to supporters, but philosophical objections remain. Creativity and innovation work both ways. The freedom to run a school with a looser regulatory leash may appeal to some and scare others.

While backers see I-729 as a chance for families to have greater choice in their children’s education, opponents fear it will chisel away at one of democracy’s cornerstones — the public school system.

"We are opposed to the initiative because it harms public schools," said Barbara Mertens, assistant executive director of the Washington Association of School Administrators. "There is no way you can take this money without negatively affecting the school or district."

Some opponents fear losing top-performing students and active parents who could improve existing schools. There is also concern that special-needs children who may not fit a charter school’s instructional philosophy will be left behind.

I-729 lets school districts or universities sponsor schools that would be publicly funded but allowed to operate free of most state and district rules. The new schools, limited to 20 per year, can’t charge tuition, teach religion or discriminate in admission.

The money that would normally go to the local school follows the student to the charter school, which would control the curriculum, instructional methods, calendar and staffing. The schools are designed and operated by nonprofit organizations made up of parents, teachers or community members.

While school districts can grant and revoke charters, there is little oversight over how the schools are run, said Linda Byrnes, superintendent of the Arlington School District.

"The main concern I have with charter schools is there is the ability to run a school without being accountable to a publicly elected board," she said. "That is not accountable to me as a taxpayer."

Thirty-six states have charter school laws, which can vary dramatically. Despite their growing presence, Washington would become the first state where voters chose to have charter schools if I-729 passes. Elsewhere, they were approved by legislatures.

Charter schools are typically smaller. In 1998, the median enrollment of all charter schools was about 132 students per school compared with 486 students at public schools.

State Rep. Dave Quall, D-Mount Vernon, is co-chairman of the House Education Committee and a retired educator. He has visited six charter schools and has studied charter school laws in other states.

In some states, charter school laws lack needed checks and balances. I-729 does not, he said.

"This ranks right up there with the best pieces of charter school legislation in the nation," he said.

"If you don’t reach the goals you set out to do in the charter, then your charter can be revoked," Quall said. "You talk about accountability. That is accountability."

Unlike four years ago, I-729 places a limit on the number of charter schools, requires teachers to have teaching certificates and designates school boards and universities as sponsors.

What’s also different from four years ago is the tone of the campaign. The Washington Education Association, the 68,000-member teachers union, was at the center of the debate against charter schools. This time, the WEA is taking no position while investing its resources in two other education initiatives on the ballot.

Billionaire Paul Allen, who has invested $30 million in Edison Schools, which runs for-profit schools in 16 states, is expected to spend $3 million to promote I-729.

By contrast, opponents have raised about $8,000.

"It’s a question of whether or not you can buy this election," Mertens said. "That’s the bottom line."

Four years ago, when she was superintendent of the Everett School District, Jane Hammond wrote an opinion piece for The Herald opposing the charter school initiative. Today, as superintendent of the Jefferson County School District in Colorado, she oversees 143 campuses, including 10 charter schools.

About 2,000 of the district’s 90,000 students attend charter schools, some operating out of storefronts. They range from "back-to-basics’ academies to schools for at-risk high school students to the Magnet School of the Deaf with an enrollment of 30.

"They will have an impact on your current schools," Hammond said. "You may in fact draw some students who were not in public schools."

"We talk about providing good options, and our charters are one component of that," Hammond said.

Richard Fulton is the principal and the father of two children at Compass Montessori, a 212-student charter school in Jefferson County. He knows that many students enrolled in his school might otherwise be in private school. Many of the parents tend to "shop around" for schools, he said.

It’s a marked contrast to Southwest Open High School, an alternative high school where he once served as principal in a remote southwest Colorado town. It was during a stretch there, when he observed only a tiny percentage of American Indian students graduate, that he began to embrace the idea of other approaches to running schools.

"I could see the direct effects that one kind of education system doesn’t work for all kids," Fulton said.

Yet Fulton doesn’t believe charter schools should live in their own little world, either.

"If people put up brick walls on either side, then this whole charter concept won’t work," he said. "It does take both innovative educational ideas on the charter school side and it takes some of the support and experience of the district on the other side in order to problem solve inevitable challenges."

Terry Bergeson, the state superintendent of public instruction, will vote against the charter school initiative. She will do so with mixed feelings, wishing that she had been successful in securing money for districts to provide more choices for creative optional programs.

She insists her vote is based on technical concerns, rather than the charter school concept.

"The good thing about the charter school initiative is it has accountability to goals we are trying to achieve that was not there four years ago," she said.

Bergeson worries about the "unlimited conversions" allowed in the initiative, meaning a school board, upon receiving an application, could convert existing public schools to charter schools. The conversions would not be part of the 20 schools a year that could open.

"I don’t want to have adults fighting," she said. "I want to keep our attention focused on the achievement of the students."

Gov. Gary Locke and gubernatorial candidate John Carlson both support I-729. Two local members of the statewide I-729 leadership committee are Jeannette Wood of Woodway, the former chairwoman of the state Senate Higher Education Committee, and Bob Drewel, Snohomish County executive and former president of Everett Community College.

Opponents include the League of Women Voters, the Washington State Labor Council, the Washington State Special Education Coalition and the Washington State School Directors Association.

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