Corrected: This story was updated to correct the years when previous charter school measures were voted down.
A tight race for governor, the heavy burden of rebuilding a school funding system recently declared unconstitutional, and a fourth ballot measure in two decades on charter schools has placed Washington state on an intense—and unpredictable—road for education this year.
Washington is one of nine states that don’t allow charter schools, and the largest among them in population. Charter advocates nationally, who are keeping a close eye on the referendum, stress that Washington is the only noncharter state with a large metropolitan area such as Seattle-Tacoma, home to many underprivileged students they argue would benefit most from charters.
The Republican candidate for governor, state Attorney General Rob McKenna, supports charters along with some Evergreen State political progressives, but he also wants to partner with the state teachers’ union to expand the share of the state budget dedicated to K-12 public schools.
His Democratic opponent, Jay Inslee, a former congressman, says charters would dilute resources needed by a school system already facing plenty of demands. Many of his supporters, especially those in the 82,000-member Washington Education Association, see Mr. McKenna as carved from the mold of Wisconsin GOP Gov. Scott Walker, a union antagonist, and see vouchers and similar policies on the horizon if he wins.
And both candidates are grappling with a landmark state Supreme Court ruling in January requiring Washington to revamp its funding system, with mixed reviews and vague plans on the best ways forward.
“This election is the lead-up to arguably the most important legislative session that we’re going to have on education,” said Chris Korsmo, the president of the Seattle-based League of Education Voters, which has not endorsed either gubernatorial candidate but has supported both the charter initiative and the lawsuit over inadequate funding.
Back on Ballot
This is the fourth time Washington voters have gotten a chance to allow charter schools—the idea was voted down in 1996, 2000, and 2004. If approved, the initiative on next month’s ballot would permit up to 40 charters to begin operating statewide (there are about 2,280 public schools in the state and roughly 290 districts). A statewide commission would approve them, as could districts that apply to be authorizers, with commission members appointed by the governor and the leaders of both legislative chambers.
Proponents say strict oversight would mandate that charter-management groups maintain high quality or lose their schools in five years and that the cap on charters allow for the state to manage their growth carefully. Proponents would also focus on low-income and minority students, they say, who have been outperformed significantly by white and Asian students in terms of graduation rates and on tests intended to satisfy requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act such as the now-defunct Washington Assessments of Student Learning.
Charter advocates hope that this time around voters are more aware of the problems facing Seattle’s low-income students and their struggles to succeed.
Sammamish resident Bob Seidensticker is a recent convert to charter schools. He said they represent freedom for students in need and for teachers alike and divulged that he would nevertheless be voting for Mr. Inslee despite the Democrat’s opposition to charters. “The realities of political life are ugly,” said Mr. Seidensticker.
Charter proponents said they often hear from those who fear that charters equate to, or would lead to, school privatization. But Valerie Tarico of Seattle said the initiative would inoculate public schools from things like the private-school vouchers in Arizona.
“Effective, functioning, innovative public schools, which is what charters bring us, create a bulwark against privatization,” said Ms. Tarico, a supporter of the “Yes on 1240" campaign.
Still, she conceded that support from prominent business leaders in the state, such as Microsoft founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen and parents of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, were being used effectively by charter opponents to paint the proposal as the brainchild of elites.
Total contributions to the “Yes on 1240" campaign add up to $8.3 million, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, a non-profit based in Helena, Mont. In fall 2004, pro-charter donations totaled $3.8 million, the Seattle Times reported that year.
The two anti-charter campaigns, meanwhile, have raised $275,000 between them, including donations from the state teachers’ union, an affiliate of the National Education Association. That pales, however, in comparison with 2004, when $1.3 million had been raised by early October to fight charters.
‘Creating Two Systems’
Chris Holmquist said he had taught in public schools for more than 25 years, but this Columbus Day was the first time he had ever worked a political phone bank. He said that Mr. Inslee would see issues through teachers’ eyes while protecting the existing education system against charters.
“You’re creating two systems, and neither one is going to be funded appropriately,” he said while taking a break from the phones in Kent, south of Seattle.
As for Mr. McKenna, who supports performance pay and abolishing last-hired-first-fired labor rules, Mr. Holmquist saw parallels to another Republican governor elected in 2010, and fears Mr. McKenna would move against collective bargaining itself. “He’s going to talk one way and behave another way if he becomes governor, just like Scott Walker did in Wisconsin.”
On the charter issue, teachers were quick to cite existing schools where teachers, parents, and community members have reshaped the curriculum, labor contracts, and learning environments without charters. Examples include the extended-learning-day program at Lincoln Center in Tacoma, and iGrad, a school in Kent that caters to returning dropouts and partners with a local community college.
Funding Questions Raised
But perhaps the most prominent argument used by teachers is a lack of funding.
In its January ruling in McCleary v. Washington, the state Supreme Court ruled the state had been violating its own constitution by not adequately funding education, in part by relying too heavily on local levies, and said lawmakers must agree on a solution by 2018. Estimates on the annual additional amount needed to fix the problem range from $1 billion to as high as $4.1 billion over the next two years.
That last estimate comes from state schools chief Randy Dorn, who says Washington students are doing well on academic measures overall, such as the SAT. But such numbers will erode if state funding remains anemic, he argued.
“The support and the morale [in public schools] is getting thinner and thinner,” said Mr. Dorn, who opposes the charter measure. “I do not support that certain segments of the population can self-select for a charter school.”
At a campaign stop in Lacey, not far from Olympia, the state capital, Mr. Inslee said he wasn’t looking at charters through a “conspiratorial lens” that envisions vouchers and privatization. But he said charters would dilute resources for “strapped” public schools.
‘Seeds of Innovation’
“We are a chock-a-block full with the seeds of innovation. I want to see those seeds spread and sprout … I think we have the beginning of an innovation revolution in our schools,” Mr. Inslee said. He has also criticized Mr. McKenna for saying the state should explore transferring wealth from rich districts to poor ones and creating a larger state education levy to substitute for local taxes. The idea represents an attempt to satisfy the McCleary v. Washington ruling and provide stability for school finance.
But on a visit to the Muckleshoot Tribal School in Auburn, Mr. McKenna blasted his opponent for “cynical” campaign tactics in attacking him for a redistribution proposal initiated by Democrats. He also voiced support for the charter push.
“The fact that so many other states have adopted them and have been expanding them tells us they can be useful alternatives for parents and their children, and teachers who get involved in starting them,” he said.
Despite his support for policies that WEA members eye with distaste, like eliminating the last-hired, first-fired personnel policy, Mr. McKenna said teachers would be involved in negotiations over future education issues and the fight to stop K-12 funding from shrinking as a share of the state budget.
When Elway Research, a Seattle-based polling firm, asked state residents whether education issues in the state gave Mr. Inslee or Mr. McKenna a bigger advantage, 31 percent gave the edge to Mr. Inslee, while 30 percent gave it to Mr. McKenna. The rest gave neither an advantage on the issue.
Advocates and Arguments
During a public-affairs forum at the Horizon House retirement home here last week, Lisa Macfarlane, the executive director of Democrats for Education Reform’s Washington state chapter, stressed that charter schools are public schools. “Washington is the only state in the country with an urban corridor that does not have charter schools,” Ms. Macfarlane said. (Democrats for Education Reform, a non-profit group, has bucked the traditional Democratic establishment and unions on some education issues.)
But charters in other states have encountered a litany of problems, from investigations over civil rights complaints about their mishandling of special education students, to financial guidelines that have not been followed, said Melissa Westbrook, an advocate with the “No on 1240" campaign.
"[It] offers no mandates that guarantee anything for at-risk students. It is new spending with no new revenue,” Ms. Westbrook told the audience.
Afterward, Horizon House resident Rosella Broyles remained unconvinced by the pro-charter arguments: “I’m not terribly clear what the controls are for charter schools. … It’s going to divide the pot.”
But her neighbor Ned Lang sounded a note of desperation for students who are underserved.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to experiment,” he said “If it doesn’t work, get rid of it.”
Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the October 17, 2012 edition of Education Week as Charters, K-12 Aid Roiling Wash. State