Charter schools measure revived and debated in state Senate

OLYMPIA — Those wanting to lift the state’s ban on charter schools ran smack into opposition Wednesday from teachers, principals and school board members.

The two sides collided at a Senate education committee hearing on a bill to create the schools, which are controversial because they are publicly funded yet privately run under terms of contractlike charters.

Supporters said with the state’s growing fondness of alternatively run innovative schools, such schools would simply be another option for parents.

For persistently failing schools, a charter could provide needed flexibility to revamp instruction to boost academic achievement, said Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, the bill’s prime sponsor and a member of the committee. Those organizations operating successful charter schools in other states would certainly look to replicate their experience in Washington, he said.

This bill “is focused on the interest of the students and what is in the best interest of the students,” he said.

Opponents argue there’s no evidence students in charter schools perform better than those in traditional public schools. Also, they said, enabling charter schools ignores the message sent by the state Supreme Court that the state is failing to adequately fund basic education.

“The siphoning of dollars for charter schools solves no problem,” said Wendy Radar- Konofalski of the Washington Education Association, which is the statewide teachers union.

Under Senate Bill 6202, a charter school is defined as a public school and it could offer any of the same courses as a noncharter public school in one or more grades from kindergarten through the 12th grade.

They could be created by converting an existing school or starting a new one. They would be administered by a nonprofit corporation under terms of a renewable five-year contract approved by a new Washington Charter School Commission. Applicants may not be a sectarian or religious organization under the proposed law.

This bill, and an identical one introduced in the House, allows a maximum of 50 schools with no more than 10 created in any one year. It says a majority must focus on serving students defined by the state Board of Education as educationally disadvantaged.

Washington is one of nine states prohibiting charter schools though not for a lack of attempts to make them legal. Three times they’ve come before voters, and each time they’ve been rejected. The last time, in 2004, lawmakers actually passed a law allowing them only to see it repealed by voters.

Opponents said voters deserve to get a say this time as well.

“This bill goes too far, too fast,” said Mary Fertakis, president of the Washington State School Directors Association. “We believe a decision of this magnitude should be sent to a vote of the people

In a state with 2,271 schools, adding no more than 10 a year is a small step, Tom said.

“It’s kind of baffling to me when you have schools out there that have lotteries to get into them, why we wouldn’t want that option,” he said. “It’s kind of like saying here in Washington state we’re just not going to allow iPads.”

Tom’s bill faces an uncertain future in a session which runs through early March.

Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, the chairwoman, opposes the legislation and has said she wants to keep it bottled up in the committee. However, a majority of the panel’s members are known to support it.

Tom said he didn’t know how it will play out.

“Let me just say we have six members on that committee that are dedicated to making sure that bill becomes law,” Tom said.

The debate now shifts to the House where a companion bill is scheduled for hearing at 1:30 p.m. Friday in the House Committee on Education.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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