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Policy End Run: Taking a Case For Change to the People's Court

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Kent, Wash.

The Salvation Army worker posted at the entrance to the Top Food grocery store here stands motionless, her bell silent, her eyes narrowed to a squint that almost challenges shoppers to pass without dropping a coin in her kettle.

But a few feet away, a man pitching school reform and direct democracy brims with holiday cheer.

"We need your help," Ron Froton says as he dives over and over again into the stream of passersby. To those who pause, he offers a compliment--a beautiful coat, maybe a child's bright smile--to put the stranger at ease.

Mr. Froton has come to this Seattle suburb for signatures. Specifically, signatures on petitions to put charter school legislation before lawmakers and, eventually, voters.

For every signature he collects, Mr. Froton gets 40 cents. At 58, he is between jobs and needs the money.

"I don't work for any cause I don't believe in," he says. But after a week on the job, he acknowledges that he still hasn't quite figured out what a charter school is.

"I need to sit down and really think about how to explain it to people," he says. "And I haven't done that yet."

Like it or not, the "citizens initiative" is becoming a increasingly popular policy tool. In 24 states, any citizen with the right number of petition signatures can put an issue before the voters through a ballot initiative or a referendum.

So far in the 1990s, 215 citizens initiatives have appeared on state ballots nationwide. That's almost half the combined total for the past five decades.

The boom is due in part to the increased use of paid signature gatherers, which makes it easier for individuals or corporations with enough cash--about $250,000 in Washington state--to bypass lawmakers to put an idea before the voters.

But the popularity of initiative campaigns also reflects the disillusionment with government evident in recent elections.

"I think 1996 could be a banner year" for initiatives, said Bob Stern, the director of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies. "People are frustrated with the lack of decisionmaking in government."

Restructuring by Ballot

As in the past, voters next November may see some unconventional thinking on the ballot. In Oregon, for instance, petitions are circulating that advocate paying for school construction with proceeds from the legalized sale of marijuana.

More conventional initiatives affecting education--tax-limitation measures and voucher plans to pay the tuition of private school students--are also likely to be put to voters again in 1996. In Nebraska, petitions are being circulated to abolish property taxes; in California, two groups are making a run to put vouchers on the ballot--an idea that voters there resoundingly defeated in 1993.

But 1996 may see some proposals to restructure schools themselves. Frustrated by the state legislature, Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice is backing a citizens initiative that promises massive school decentralization.

And in Washington state, the initiative that Mr. Froton is hawking is designed to spur wholesale restructuring of education in the sponsors' home district of Seattle and throughout the state.

Pass the initiative and "you'd transform Seattle in five years," argued Jim Spady, who wrote the initiative with his wife, Fawn. Instead of a district of some 100 schools, they envision 200 or 300 schools, some that are "micro-schools" with as few as 30 students, some that are geared to fine arts, some to back-to-basics instruction--whatever parents want.

The Spadys' proposed legislation is a spinoff of the charter school concept that allows public funding to pay for schools that operate essentially outside state or district regulations. Under the couple's plan, residents could vote to have their school district declared "renewed." In such districts, nonprofit organizations could set up and run publicly financed "independent" schools of their own design, bound only by the state's private school code.

The Spadys' two children attend a Seattle private school. Neither child was challenged academically in the public schools, the Spadys say, and Mrs. Spady's desire to help in the classroom was subtly discouraged.

Mr. Spady said their plan would empower parents and break up the government monopoly that he believes is strangling innovation in schools. If the current public school system were regulated as a private business, "everybody involved would be in violation of antitrust laws," said Mr. Spady, a former antitrust lawyer who now manages the Dick's Drive-In chain of restaurants founded by his father. "Why are monopolies illegal? They're illegal because they tend to produce high prices, low quality, and slow innovation."

Seeking a Coalition

The Spadys' campaign bundles together many political themes. While the Spadys are lifelong Democrats steeped in Seattle's coffeehouse liberalism, Mr. Spady's trust-busting talk echoes that of President Theodore Roosevelt and the progressive movement of the early 1900s. That was when the initiative process was born in Washington and many other states wary that oil, timber, and other special interests--not the people--would control government.

The Spadys also sound the call of today's "New Democrats," arguing that they will build a bipartisan coalition that hugs the center line of school politics. Democrats have endorsed their plan, but the bulk of their support is from conservatives such as William J. Bennett and Republican presidential candidate Lamar Alexander, both former U.S. education secretaries.

"If you had asked me a year before this, I would have been saying nasty things about lots of these people," Mrs. Spady said. "But we have been programmed to do that. When you sit down and talk to some of these people who are supposedly on the bad side, except for those on the far right and the far left, we probably agree on 90 percent of things."

David vs. Goliath

The Spadys' campaign is a longshot bid. Of the nearly 800 citizens initiatives filed in the state since 1914, only 60 have become law.

To finance the signature gathering, the couple took out a $150,000 loan--cosigned by Mr. Spady's father--and will pump in $50,000 of their own. Theirs, Mr. Spady said, is a fight of David vs. Goliath to get what the people want: school reform.

The Goliath in this scenario is the host of statewide political groups that have signaled that they will oppose the plan. These range from the liberal teachers' unions to the conservative state Christian Coalition chapter. A fringe right-wing group has even denounced the plan as part of a U.N. conspiracy.

The Spadys approached officials of the Washington Education Association, the state's 65,000-member teachers' union, last spring to court support for an earlier version of the initiative that would have put teachers in charge of the independent schools. But the couple's overture was turned down.

Like other union officials who have opposed charter schools, WEA leaders argue that the Spady plan would drain money from the public school system and create elite schools that would be unaccountable to anyone. Independent schools created under the plan would be licensed by the state, but they would not have to agree to a contract, or "charter," with the state or local school board, as is required in most of the 19 states that have charter laws. (See Education Week, Nov. 29, 1995.)

With the Spady initiative as law, "I truly, truly fear for the kids and their education," said Teresa Moore, a WEA spokeswoman. "Do you want tax dollars going to private entities doing educational experiments?"

The Spadys' critics also scoff that the initiative campaign is a grassroots movement made of artificial turf. They point to out-of-state donations that include $60,000 from a Chicago business and $15,000 from John Walton, the heir to the Wal-Mart discount store fortune and a financial backer of the California voucher movement.

That the Spadys hired a company to organize and pay signature gatherers is proof that their idea has yet to catch the imagination of the people, said Ralph Munro, the Washington secretary of state and a Republican.

"The Spadys don't have a groundswell of support," Mr. Munro said. "There's no groundswell for changing the education system of this state. Those are just hired gunslingers."

A `Private Agenda'

If Mr. Froton at the Top Food is a hired gunslinger, he's shooting more than a few blanks on this night.

Charter schools are schools with a "private agenda," Mr. Froton tells many shoppers.

"That sounds like something we've been trying to get rid of," one passerby says.

Still, he is gathering close to 30 to 40 signatures an hour.

As on most occasions, though, Mr. Froton has two causes to pitch tonight. He is also gathering petition signatures for a school-voucher initiative.

The Spadys agreed that signature gatherers could carry petitions for both their plan and the voucher initiative. They hope that a payoff for two signatures will draw more foot soldiers to their campaign. Vouchers are a WEAker solution to school problems, Mrs. Spady said, "but we don't object to a school-choice discussion in the legislature that includes vouchers and charter schools."

The Spadys say they hired a company to organize and pay signature gatherers because the threshold for an initiative to qualify--182,000 signatures or 8 percent of the registered voters--is impossible to reach for a small campaign pushing a new issue. As of last week, the Spadys said they have 120,000 signatures.

The union and the other education groups criticize paid signature gathering because they all have lobbyists bunkered in "Ulcer Gulch," the state Capitol's public lounge, Mr. Spady says. "They're the special interests. Of course they don't want the public involved."

The Spadys are cautiously optimistic as they approach the Dec. 29 deadline for filing signatures. The public may not understand the charter concept yet, but it is eager for a big change in education that empowers parents, they say. A recent poll by a state political consultant reported that 57 percent of the state's voters want a "fundamental overhaul" of the system, and only 27 percent want government to be primarily responsible for the state's schools.

Should the initiative qualify, it could become a prime election issue. Democratic State Sen. Nita Reinhart is making education the focus of her campaign for governor, and she opposes the Spady plan.

Legislative hearings also could give the plan play in the news media. If lawmakers amend the Spady initiative, both versions would go on next November's ballot, giving the voters the chance to decide at least three major questions of state education policy.

"I don't know if we'll make it or not," Mr. Spady said. "But no matter what, the public of Washington state is going to be much more educated about school choice than they are today."

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