Charter schools clear electoral hurdle in Washington, Kitsap County

After a hard-fought battle, the charter schools measure, Initiative 1240, has squeaked through in Washington state 50.8 percent to 49.2.

Charter school legislation has appeared on Washington state ballots four times since 1996, three times as initiatives and once as a referendum. All three times in the past it was denied by voters. This time, however, the measure was able to pull enough votes for a narrow victory.

Bruce Richards, legislative representative for the Central Kitsap School District, said he personally doesn’t approve of I-1240. He said he would rather see the funding and opportunities go toward school districts.

“I’d much rather see all students get an opportunity,” Richards said.

The majority of voters in Kitsap County voted in favor of the initiative, 52.1 to 47.9 percent.

Richards said he doesn’t believe the measure will have much of an impact on Central Kitsap.

The passing of I-1240 makes Washington the 42nd state to implement legislation allowing for the creation of charter schools.

Exactly what effect 1240 will have on the more than 1 million students in Washington remains unclear.

Greg Lynch, Central Kitsap superintendent, said the district doesn’t currently have any plans in place regarding the new initiative.

“What we’re going to be waiting for is some state level guidance about what that’s going to look like in Washington state,” Lynch said.

The passing of I-1240 allows for no more than 40 such schools to be opened over the next five years, with no more than eight opening per year.

Public schools are funded and operated by the state Superintendent of Public Instruction. The schools are answerable to the standards and practices set forth by the state.

Private schools typically receive no funding from the Superintendent of Public Instruction and are not subject to the same standards and practices as public schools.

Charter schools cross both the public and private sector. They are funded by the state superintendent’s office in a similar manner to public schools, but they can be operated by private organizations.

In order to create a charter school, a group or school district must apply to the Washington State Charter School Commission for a charter. If the application is accepted, then a charter school can be created.

Charter schools in Washington will ultimately answer to the commission, which will be appointed no later than March of 2013.

Randy Dorn, state superintendent of public instruction, has said he believes the initiative may be unconstitutional. Since the schools created under the initiative would answer to a government appointed commission, and not the superintendent’s office. Dorn believes the measure may need to be overturned.

Dorn highlighted the number of schools in Washington that are already enacting innovative plans, such as Tacoma School of the Arts and Bremerton’s Washington Youth Academy.

Nearly all of the 22 schools on the superintendent’s list are located in the largest urban areas of the state, with a total enrollment around 10,000. The thin spread of these schools raises for Dorn the same problem opponents of I-1240 raised toward charter schools: they serve only a tiny portion of students in the state.

I-1240 has come on the heels of a State Supreme Court ruling in January that the Legislature was failing to meet its constitutional requirement to, “Make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders,” (State Constitution, art. IX, sec. 1).

The cost to implement a charter school program in the state has been a central argument surrounding I-1240, considering the recent ruling.

Estimates listed within the initiative’s description on the Secretary of State’s website show the fiscal impact to be about $600,000 a year for the first five years.

The Washington Education Association, a state teachers union, is among the initiative’s opposition. It lists the “siphoning” of funding from public schools among its reasons for opposing the initiative.

Opponents claim that charter schools will pull needed money away from already financially struggling public schools and will, in return, only benefit a small number of students.

Many who opposed the initiative see it as an unnecessary and unproven method that merely gets in the way of solutions already taking place.

The Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University partnered with 15 states and the District of Columbia to look at the result of charter school implementation throughout the country.

Two parts of the study deserve highlighting. The first is stated in the study’s introduction: “The results vary strongly by state and are shown to be influenced in significant ways by several characteristics of state charter school policies.”

The second part is not encouraging news for charter school proponents. Despite the variance from state to state, the study claims that as a whole nearly half of charter schools perform no better than their traditional counter-parts, and 37 percent “produce learning gains that are significantly worse” than traditional public schools.

Only 17 percent delivered better learning gains than traditional public schools.

A major complaint against charter schools in the U.S. has revolved around for-profit organizations taking over public instruction through the use of charters.

I-1240 seeks to prevent this problem by only allowing nonprofit organizations to manage charter schools. These organizations also cannot be religious or sectarian in nature. So no public money will go to the funding of religious schools.

Charter schools would be required to participate in state retirement programs for teachers and staff as well as state employee health benefit programs. The initiative also stated that public schools would “generally be subject to the same collective bargaining requirements as other public schools,” but that these bargaining units would be limited to the teachers within a charter school, not teachers from multiple schools or a district as is the case with current teachers unions.

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