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Published in Print: March 17, 2004, as Wash. Charter Backers Near Finish Line, Finally

Wash. Charter Backers Near Finish Line, Finally

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After nearly a decade of bitter fights over charter schools, the Washington state legislature narrowly approved a measure last week to allow the independently operated but publicly financed schools.

Passage of the bill capped a lengthy campaign by charter school supporters to overcome the strong opposition of organizations representing the state's school administrators and teachers. Gov. Gary Locke, a Democrat, promised to sign the measure shortly.

"This is a big victory for children and families and educators who want to do more to help kids," declared Jim Spady, a parent who, along with his wife, began promoting a charter law in the state in 1994, when his son was a kindergartner in the Seattle public schools.

But the Washington Education Association denounced the measure as a major drain on funding for regular public schools that would "do nothing to improve the quality of education."

"There is little public support for establishing a new system of charter schools in our state," said Charles Hasse, the president of the National Education Association affiliate. Instead, he said, the public favors "support for existing neighborhood public schools."

The Democratic- led House of Representatives passed the bill 51-46 on March 10. An equally divided Senate, controlled by Republicans, cleared an identical version of the measure by a vote of 27-22 about five hours later.

A maximum of 45 new charter schools could be established statewide over the next six years, under the measure.

National groups that favor charter schools have watched Washington state for years in hopes that a bill there would finally make it to the finish line.

Legislation permitting charter schools passed the House each year from 1995 to 1998, but not the Senate, according to the Seattle- based Education Excellence Coalition, a charter advocacy group that Mr. Spady directs with his wife, Fawn Spady. Last year, legislation passed the Senate for the first time, in both regular and special sessions of the legislature, but did not reach the floor of the lower chamber, the coalition said.

"It's been a long time in coming, and it's taken a lot of struggle to get there," said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a group based in the nation's capital that supports charter schools. "But it's finally done, and for that, Washington state lawmakers deserve our thanks."

'You Must Perform'

Ms. Allen said the center had not yet analyzed the law to determine whether it was "strong" or "weak," according to criteria her organization uses to rate states' charter laws.

But she expressed concern about a provision requiring applicants for charters to first approach their local school boards for approval. Only if those local boards turn down the proposals could the applicants appeal to either a regional educational services district or the state superintendent of public instruction, under the measure.

"Citizens will need to pay close attention to see if the districts use the provision responsibly, or if they use it as a means to stymie charter initiatives and frustrate hopes, especially in places like Seattle where the school board is on record as opposing charter schools," Ms. Allen said.

Mr. Spady contended that the Washington state measure would hold charter schools to stringent accountability standards. He noted a provision that requires charter authorizers to reject a school's bid for renewal if its students' academic progress "is inferior, for the most recent two consecutive years, to the average progress of students in the district in which the charter school is located when similar student populations are compared."

"You must perform," Mr. Spady said in a telephone interview. "If you're below average after five years, compared to schools with similar populations, you cannot have your charter renewed, period."

In addition to start-up schools, the measure lays out ground rules for public schools to convert to charter status.

Officials at the Washington Association of School Administrators, in Olympia, said the measure passed primarily because it was packaged with three other education bills that educators considered vital. Those bills effectively ease a law that caps school levies; change the distribution of money under the state's aid program for struggling students; and allow retakes of the state exit exam, a graduation requirement scheduled to go into effect in 2008.

"We're extremely disappointed that the legislature chose to take this action," said Barbara Mertens, the group's assistant executive director, noting that in 1996 and 2000, voters defeated ballot measures that would have authorized charter schools.

"If [the charter bill] had not been directly linked to three other education bills," she said, "it probably wouldn't have passed this time either."

If enacted as expected, the Washington legislation would become the nation's 42nd law authorizing charter schools.

Vol. 23, Issue 27, Pages 31,38

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