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Choice Plans Face Big Statewide Test in Wash.

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As school choice faces its big day before Washington state voters next week, backers of two closely watched ballot initiatives are making a final push to get people here as fired up about choice as they are.

One measure, Initiative 177, would allow school districts to choose to operate independent of most state and district management. If school districts opted for the deregulated system, new schools could join up under minimal regulation and collect state aid.

The other proposal, Initiative 173, would require the state to provide parents "state scholarships" to use toward tuition for K-12 students. Nonreligious private or public schools could convert to qualify as voucher-redeeming charter schools, a status different from that of the charter schools proposed in Initiative 177.

Sponsors of the two measures are appealing to voters here and across the state by saying their ideas give parents the power to "take control of their children's education," offer an alternative to the "education establishment," and could prove to be "the essential ingredient for improved education."

"For me, the question is no longer 'Do we have to fix public schools?' It is 'how?'" said Fawn Spady, who along with her husband, Jim Spady, has taken out a loan against their house to help finance Initiative 177. "I think charter schools are an answer."

The school proposals on the Washington ballot Nov. 5 exemplify a boom in citizen-initiated policymaking in states around the country. ("Policy End Run: Taking a Case for Change to the People's Court," Dec. 13, 1995, and chart in This Week's News.)

Polls in Washington state show that education leads the list of subjects on voters' minds. And this fall, the school choice campaigns have emerged not only as major issues in their own right, but also as the backdrop for state and local campaigns.

High-Gear Campaigning

On the voucher front, the vote next week marks the first statewide test of the issue since California voters resoundingly defeated a voucher initiative in 1993. The California measure, which would have granted $2,500 vouchers for parents to redeem at any public, private, or parochial school, was voted down by 70 percent of the state's voters.

Recent work on the issue has been limited to state legislatures.

Since last spring, when the forces for and against the initiatives blossomed here, prospective voters have been treated to information and fact-slinging as varied as this state's lush landscape. In newspapers, on talk shows, at school board meetings, and in public forums across the state, the school choice drama has held its own alongside the clamor of campaigns for president, Congress, governor, and other state offices, including a highly visible race for superintendent of public instruction. ("11 Duke It Out in High-Profile Race for Schools Chief in Wash.," Sept. 11, 1996.)

More than $2 million has been spent to persuade voters to vote one way or another on school choice, and both sides have accused each other of buying votes.

The Spadys, whose charter school campaign will ultimately have cost nearly $1 million, have helped pay for the campaign with more than $205,000 of their own money.

Other donations have filtered in from people across Washington and in other states, including $100,000 from a Chicago businessman and $85,000 from Wal-Mart heir John Walton.

Ron Taber, a retired businessman from Olympia, who is also running for state schoolssuperintendent, has bankrolled the $300,000 campaign for vouchers with $266,000 of his own money. He, too, has received support from several other private donors.

The opponents of the two proposals, known as the "No on 173 and 177 Committee," have spent about $700,000 to defeat both measures, with thousands to be spent each day until Nov. 5. More than $500,000 came from the Washington Education Association--with 65,000 members, the state's largest teachers' union--and another $15,000 was kicked in by the Washington Federation of Teachers. Other big contributors include the Washington State Labor Council and groups representing school principals and superintendents.

Gloomy Statistics

For those just tuning in to the school choice debate, the array of arguments and statistics could be used to make a legitimate case for or against either plan.

Jim and Fawn Spady, for example, make their appeal with a short videotape depicting a successful charter school in California, followed by studies that extol the virtues of the more than 400 charter schools around the country. It cites reports from the Hudson Institute of Indianapolis and the Little Hoover Commission, which studied charter schools in California.

Arguments for school choice are punctuated by a battery of gloomy public school statistics from urban districts in the state, chronicling low graduation rates, poor student performance, unsafe schools, and busing nightmares.

Like the Spadys, Mr. Taber also lobbies on what he calls the "failures of public schools."

"No one has a right to operate an entity that is failing and demand more money," said Mr. Taber, a Republican. "My proposal says, 'If you fail, you pay,' and good teaching is rewarded."

Mr. Taber frequently invokes the mantra of "free-market education." Schools full of students who cash in vouchers would be "superior to even a good government school," he said in an interview before a televised debate with his opponent for state superintendent, Terry Bergeson. Ms. Bergeson, a former president of the WEA, is against both initiatives.

Under the voucher initiative, students born after Sept. 1, 1989, would qualify for vouchers that would equal at least 55 percent of the state's per-pupil spending for the previous school year. With average school spending in Washington last year about $6,000, the vouchers would be worth about $3,400.

'No Accountability'

But while the fervor of Mr. Taber and the Spadys has found a receptive audience, an even bigger chorus of education groups and state legislators from both parties is lined up in opposition. And polling suggests that most voters are inclined to see massive deregulation and statewide vouchers as a threat to public schools, not a fix for them.

Marc Dean Millot, a social scientist for the RAND Corp., a public-policy think tank, said Washington state's school choice proposals "explicitly divorce schools from Washington state law, specifically 1993's Education Reform Act," which mandates high standards and new assessments.

Mr. Millot said the Spadys' charter school plan is "intentionally gray" in accountability areas and is "more a school voucher plan dressed up as a sort of charter school." Both the voucher and charter school proposals, he said, adhere only to a very minimal list of private school requirements--accountability to a government agency not among them.

Voters in the state appear to be divided over the two plans. A poll taken in mid-October of 813 likely voters statewide found that 45 percent opposed the charter school initiative, 31 percent favored it, and 24 percent remained undecided. At the same time, 49 percent opposed the voucher initiative, 35 percent supported it, and 16 percent were undecided. The poll, which had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points, was conducted by Political/Media Research for The Spokesman-Review newspaper and KHQ-TV.

At a recent forum on the school choice initiatives in Everett, a scenic, northern suburb of Seattle, parents, teachers, and others gathered in a high school cafeteria for a debate in which former Republican gubernatorial candidate Nona Brazier argued in favor of the school voucher plan, Ms. Spady defended the virtues of her charter school plan, and Democratic state senator and former gubernatorial candidate Nina Rinehart disputed the cases for both measures.

Cindy Stanley, a self-described "stay-at-home mom" from Bothell whose children attend Everett schools, arrived at the forum undecided. After listening to both sides, she said the school choice campaigns failed to make their case.

"There's definitely room for improvement in the schools. But these initiatives are not the answer," Ms. Stanley said in an interview a few days after the debate. Her biggest fear, she said, was that the plans "would bring more segregation to public schools."

Corrine Bonkowski, a preschool teacher and mother of three, also attended the forum. She said she's against the proposals because she wants "someone to be accountable to oversee schools. Not just parents."

Overall, Ms. Bonkowski said, she's been happy with her children's schools, which she said "have made some positive changes over the last few years." And she said that the parental involvement that both plans exalted was already taking place in her district.

"What [the initiatives] are proposing is a lot of what I see in the schools every day."

Others have been in favor of the proposals from the get-go. John Burkholder, a former teacher and father of three, left teaching to manage his brother's dental practice and pursue entrepreneurial ventures.

Mr. Burkholder said he supports school vouchers and charter schools because they give teachers and parents freedom from a "top-heavy administration."

"I was tired of all the nonsense," he said, explaining his departure from teaching after 12 years. "I saw the government creep in at every turn. Administrators--people out of the classroom making up to six figures a year--put up more roadblocks than they help. Every year it was something different according to the administrative protocol of the moment."

Reasonable Choices

Richard Arends, the visiting chairman of the school of education at Seattle University, said choice initiatives aren't necessarily a referendum on the quality of public schools, but rather are an effort to provide parents with "another set of choices" in an era of mass consumerism.

"In a society, we're allowed choices in every other arena--higher education, medical care--it seems unreasonable to many parents that they can't choose the most fitting school for their children," Mr. Arends said.

Although voucher advocates have been visible on the national scene for more than a decade, voucher programs have been implemented in only Milwaukee and Cleveland, two cities where mostly conservative state lawmakers and disenchanted inner city leaders came up with relatively small-scale plans to give low-income students public aid to enroll in private schools.

No statewide voucher programs are in place anywhere in the nation. Critics of Mr. Taber's voucher plan say his program would push Washington state into unknown territory, at a time when they say public schools in the state are improving and students are performing well.

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