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Despite Full-Court Press, Wash. Charter Bill Likely To Die

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Some lawmakers in Washington state may now think twice before calling for more "parental involvement" in schools.

Two Seattle parents, Jim and Fawn Spady, raised such a ruckus to promote charter schools that the issue has dominated the state legislature's education debate this year. The couple hounded state leaders, the news media, and even President Clinton in their bid to make Washington the 21st state with a charter school law.

"We've got the momentum now," Mr. Spady said last week. "The political landscape has changed overnight."

Despite such optimism, the Spadys' effort to sway lawmakers appeared all but certain to fall short as the legislative session neared its close last week.

"I think it's over," said Republican Sen. Dan McDonald, a charter school backer.

But the Spadys are ready for round two. A legislative proposal that they wrote to restructure schools using a variation of the charter school concept will appear on the state's November ballot, making Washington the first state where voters will have the chance to weigh in on the issue.

Troubled by their experience with schools in Seattle and in a nearby suburb, the Spadys pored over education journals and policy papers and set out more than a year ago to devise a school-reform plan. (See Education Week, Dec. 13, 1995.)

Their aggressive lobbying has rankled many educators and politicians and caused some to question their tactics. But charter school backers credit the Spadys, who describe themselves as lifelong Democrats, with raising the profile of what had been a back-burner issue in the state.

"They kicked the ant heap, and now everybody knows about charter schools," said Rep. Brian Thomas, the Republican author of a charter school bill that passed the House last month, 65-32.

Charter schools, which may be started by a variety of groups or individuals, receive public funding but operate free of most state and local regulations.

Competing Bills

The Spadys embraced Mr. Thomas' bill, which would allow any charter school to open that received approval from a local school board or, starting in 1999, the state schools chief. But Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, a Democrat, held the legislation up in her committee, claiming that there was no support for it to move.

Sen. McAuliffe backed her own bill, which would cap the number of charter schools at 27. Her legislation also would make local school boards the only public agencies that could approve charter schools, a provision that in other states has squelched much charter school activity.

"We just don't really feel we've seen strong data from other states showing how charters have improved quality education for all students," Sen. McAuliffe said.

As the session wound to a close last week, though, the Spadys pressured Senate Majority Leader Sid Snyder to call a vote to move Rep. Thomas' bill directly to the floor. With the Spadys' encouragement, both newspapers in his district ran editorials supporting the charter school bill.

The couple bombarded White House aides with calls urging that President Clinton lobby his fellow Democrats on the bill.

The president has endorsed the concept of charter schools, but the time crunch did not allow for a study of the Washington state legislation, said Jon Schnur, the special assistant to U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Madeleine Kunin.

"Anything can be described as a charter bill," Mr. Schnur said. "We've seen anything from weak laws to bills that are very similar to private school voucher plans."

Meanwhile, Illinois lawmakers last week cleared a bill that would allow the creation of up to 45 charter schools. Republican Gov. Jim Edgar is expected to sign the legislation into law soon.

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