State education groups file charter initiative

SEATTLE — A coalition of Washington education groups on Tuesday filed a citizen initiative asking voters to allow 40 public charter schools in the state over the next five years.

The coalition including the League of Education Voters, Stand for Children and Democrats for Education Reform has until July 6 to collect nearly 250,000 valid voter signatures.

A spokesman for the coalition said the groups would use both paid and volunteer signature collectors to meet the July deadline. But first they need to jump a few administrative hoops. It could be several weeks before they will be able to print petition sheets and circulate them.

Charters are public schools that run independently from district controls, instead, they are governed by a multi-year performance contract that requires proof that a school is improving student achievement.

Washington voters have repeatedly rejected charter school initiatives.

Washington is one of eight states without charter schools, according to the Center for Education Reform, an advocacy group that supports charters. The other states are Alabama, Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and West Virginia.

Washington voters rejected initiatives calling for charter schools in 1996, 2000 and 2004. The Legislature rejected charter bills on several other occasions before they reached the ballot.

A charter school bill had hearings in both the Senate and the House but didn’t make it very far during the 2012 Legislature.

Voters are ready to allow charter schools in Washington state, said Chris Korsmo, chief executive officer of the League of Education Voters.

“If we didn’t think we could win, we wouldn’t put it on the ballot,” Korsmo said.

She said the proposal was written in a way to bring only the best ideas from other states to Washington, and charter schools that don’t fulfill their mission would be shut down quickly.

Korsmo couldn’t relate to people who are afraid of the potential impact of charter schools on Washington education.

“If bringing what works elsewhere here is scary for people, the status quo for a lot of kids is a far scarier thing,” she said.

A number of lawmakers, from both political parties, are supporting the initiative.

“This initiative will finally bring Washington into the 21st century in terms of educational opportunities for public school students,” said State Rep. Eric Pettigrew, D-Seattle, in a statement announcing the initiative.

The Washington Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union, came out with an immediate statement opposing the measure, saying that charter schools fail to meet the needs of most children.

The proposal would require charter schools to be authorized and overseen by a state charter school commission, or by a local school board.

They would be exempt from many state laws, but could only hire certified teachers and would need to comply with all civil rights and discrimination laws.

Priority would be given to charter schools that serve “at-risk” students from low-performing schools.

Only nonprofit groups would be welcome to open charter schools in Washington, but they would not be allowed to include religious instruction as part of their curriculum.

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