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Wash. Choice Proposals Go Down to Defeat

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Organizers of two school choice initiatives in Washington state say that after last week's defeats, they will focus on getting a charter school law passed in the next legislative session.

School choice supporters stopped short of calling the failure of the state's voucher and charter school initiatives by a 2-1 ratio a setback for the movement nationally.

"I don't think that many choice advocates were looking at Washington state," said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington, D.C., group that supports vouchers and other forms of choice. "It was not a viable effort, and it was not thought through."

But the defeat of Washington's voucher proposal is the fourth time such a plan has failed on a statewide ballot since 1991. Such initiatives have also been voted down in Oregon, Colorado, and California.

To opponents of vouchers, the results speak for themselves.

"Every single time the general public has had an opportunity to vote on this issue, they have rejected vouchers. They want to see us improve public schools," said Robert F. Chase, the president of the National Education Association. "I hope that policymakers are listening."

The NEA's state affiliate in Washington was the major contributor to the campaign to defeat the voucher and charter initiatives.

Joe Nathan, the director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota and the author of a recent charter school analysis, said he doesn't think school choice measures will ever be passed by a direct vote of citizens.

Two-Thirds Opposed

The unions and other education groups have "demonstrated that they are willing to spend millions of dollars to defeat school choice proposals," he said. "They can mobilize."

Sixty-six percent of Washington state voters said no to both choice proposals on the Nov. 5 ballot. Opponents of the voucher and charter initiatives argued that the proposals would have lowered standards for students and given the proposed charter and "voucher redeeming" schools broad flexibility without much accountability. ("Under New Budget, Charter Schools Cash In," Oct. 30, 1996.)

Some also said the initiatives were poorly worded and confusing.

"If we were going to go back to the voters with it, I think I would make it even shorter," said Ron Taber, a businessman and unsuccessful candidate for state schools superintendent who used more than $250,000 of his own money to get the voucher initiative on the ballot. He added that the next time around, he would limit the plan to low-income children rather than pushing for a statewide plan.

State lawmakers in Wisconsin and Ohio have created pilot voucher programs for poor children in Milwaukee and Cleveland.

The Washington voucher proposal, known as Initiative 173, would have given families scholarships equal to at least 55 percent of the state's per-pupil spending for the previous school year. Based on a current average per-student cost of $6,000, each voucher would have amounted to about $3,400.

Public and nonreligious private schools could have converted to qualify as voucher-redeeming charter schools.

The separate charter proposal was largely the work of Jim and Fawn Spady, Seattle parents and small-business owners who took out a loan against their house to help finance the initiative.

But as the race unfolded, they were no match for the dozens of statewide organizations that made up the No on 173 and 177 Committee.

"We will proceed to rally the troops and take it to Olympia," said Liz Holohan, who worked for the Spadys' Education Excellence Coalition. "Charters will not go away."

Not 'True' Charters?

The Spady plan was different from charter school laws that have passed elsewhere in the country in that it called for local voters to decide whether to create "renewed school districts" in which nonprofit organizations could operate independent public schools. These schools would have been exempt from most state education policies, regulations, and standards.

One reason many charter advocates don't feel wounded by the defeat in Washington is that they don't think the plan would have created true charter schools.

"It didn't have a contract for results," one of the critical elements in other charter school laws, Mr. Nathan said.

Marc Dean Millot, a senior social scientist in the Washington, D.C. office of the RAND Corp., said he felt the Spadys stretched the meaning of charter schools too far. Their proposal ended up looking more like "voucher schools," because the independent schools would only have been required to adhere to essentially the same regulations governing private schools in the state, he said.

If Washington state enacts a charter law, it could look different from the Spadys' version.

Terry Bergeson, elected state schools superintendent last week, said she supports charter schools and will try again with lawmakers who were close to getting a law passed this year.

The state's Democratic governor-elect, Gary Locke, has also said he would like lawmakers to address the issue.

Considering that Ms. Bergeson is a former president of the Washington Education Association, it is unlikely that her plan would resemble the proposal that the state's voters rejected.

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