SEATTLE (AP) — Supporters of charter schools submitted more than enough signatures Friday in their efforts to put the initiative on the November ballot, shifting the work to persuading Washington voters it will be good for students.
Using paid and volunteer signature gatherers, backers collected about 350,000 signatures for Initiative 1240 in about three weeks. A ballot initiative needs about 242,000 valid signatures to qualify, and must be approved by the Secretary of State’s office.
State voters previously rejected charter schools in 1996, 2000 and 2004.
The campuses offer options for parents frustrated with regular public schools. Some research have found these independent public schools are especially good at helping minority and low-income students improve their learning, close the achievement gap and head to college.
The state’s largest teachers union says the privately run, publicly funded schools take money from traditional public schools and have not been shown to do a better job at improving student achievement.
Other opponents, including Gov. Chris Gregoire, many lawmakers and gubernatorial candidate Jay Inslee, say Washington has lots of innovative schools and welcomes more creativity in the classroom.
Supporters say parents should decide and the state should take what was learned elsewhere by offering only types of charter schools that have shown to improve achievement, making sure the oversight is excellent, and quickly shutting down the schools that aren’t working.
The coalition of education reform groups bringing charter schools back to the ballot say the initiative was written with those ideas in mind.
“The fact that so many voters across the state stepped forward and signed our petitions in record time clearly shows that Washingtonians want another opportunity to vote on allowing public charter schools in our state,” said Shannon Campion, executive director of the Washington chapter of Stand for Children, one of the groups supporting the initiative.
Dorn and Mary Lindquist, president of the Washington Education Association, expressed concern about the amount of money that they expect will be spent on the ballot campaign, after more than $2 million was raised to collect signatures.
“We’re going to be outspent 10- or-12-to-one,” Lindquist predicted. She added, however, that the teacher’s union has the strength of its members advocating for education in every community across the state.
Whether more dollars from the National Education Association, the WEA’s parent organization, will come to Washington to help with this fight has not been determined, Lindquist said.
Robin Lake, director of the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education, and a national expert on charter school research, said a law is an important starting place for charter school quality, but there’s no guarantee that every school will be excellent.
“It takes commitment and on-the-ground work after the law is implemented,” she said.
Finding a balance between regulations and freedom for creativity helped lead charters to success in other places. Lake cited success stories in Denver, New York City and New Orleans, and noted failures in states such as Arizona, which she says has weak oversight and accountability.
Lake said this proposal is big on accountability, starts out slow with a maximum of 40 charters over five years, would force the closure of unsuccessful schools, allows only nonprofit operators, prioritizes proposals that would serve economically and academically disadvantaged students, and limits who could authorize a new school.
That authority worried the superintendent of public instruction, Randy Dorn, who questioned the constitutionality of the proposal. He said it appears to set up an alternative state schools system to authorize and track the progress of charters.
“This bill circumvents the Constitution. There’s no doubt in my mind,” Dorn said.
Some research shows charter schools have been either OK, good or great for students in 41 other states and the District of Columbia. But a study of the impact of the charter school movement from Stanford University also found about half of charter schools were no better than traditional public schools, a quarter were worse and a quarter improved student achievement.
The results were different when schools were judged state-by-state, instead of across the country because individual state laws can be matched with their results, Lake said.
Other details of the charter schools initiative:
— Religious charters would not be allowed.
— School boards could apply to be a charter authorizer, but must meet the same requirements and have the same success to keep this designation. The other possible charter “authorizer” would be a statewide board.
— School districts could turn over low-achieving schools to a charter operator. These new schools would need to welcome every student from the old school who wants to attend. In such cases, the district would need to give the charter school a building with free rent. Other charters will get per-student funding from the state but will have to find their own building.
— If more students want to attend a charter school than the school has room for, the students would be chosen by lottery.
— Charters are not required to negotiate with the teacher’s union or hire union teachers, but the teachers must be certified. About 16 percent of charters across the country are unionized.
— Students of charter schools would still be required to take the statewide academic tests upon which their success will be judged.
— Although these new schools would be exempt from many state laws, they would have to follow all applicable local, state and federal health, safety, parents’ rights, civil rights and nondiscrimination laws.
— Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.