School Choice & Charters

Prospects for Wash. Charter School Initiative Look Dim

By Darcia Harris Bowman — November 15, 2000 3 min read

A ballot measure that would legalize charter schools in Washington state appeared to be headed for defeat at press time last week.

The initiative was losing 52 percent to 48 percent as of last Friday. But half of Washington’s voters use mail-in absentee ballots, and election officials warned that it might be Thanksgiving Day or later before the outcomes of its closest races were clear.

Supporters of the years-long effort to bring charter schools to the Evergreen State remained confident that the roughly 470,000 outstanding absentee ballots could still give them a victory.

“I am not conceding defeat,” advocate Jim Spady declared last week. “Yesterday’s general election is over, but the final result is not clear—not in the election for president, not in Washington’s U.S. Senate election, and not in the election to authorize charter public schools in Washington state.”

If the measure passes, Washington will join 37 other states and the District of Columbia in allowing charter schools. It would be the first state to approve creation of the publicly financed but largely independent schools through a ballot initiative instead of legislative action.

Mr. Spady and his wife, Fawn Spady, led a similar ballot drive in 1996 that was defeated by a 2-1 ratio in the face of fierce opposition from the state teachers’ union.

This time, though, the union ignored the measure, and the Spadys had on their side Paul G. Allen, the co-founder of the Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft Corp. Of the $3.4 million spent on the “yes” campaign for charter schools, all but $200,000 was contributed by Mr. Allen and his family. Most of the money was spent on television advertising, according to campaign officials.

The Washington Association of School Administrators, the charter measure’s only active opponent, spent just $11,000.

“This is not a grassroots movement for charter schools—it’s a special-interest movement, and it’s never had widespread support here,” said Doyle Winter, the WASA president. “We feel if we defeat this one more time in Washington state, it won’t come back.”

Other Initiatives Pass

That the initiative appeared to be failing last week despite its strong financial backing and scant organized opposition puzzled charter school advocates inside and outside the state.

The measure played well in Seattle and its suburbs, but drew little support from the rural areas of the state and failed to resonate with voters in suburban Clark County, next to the Oregon border.

On the other hand, two statewide initiatives to pump more money into regular public schools passed by overwhelming margins last week. The state teachers’ union, which actively campaigned for those proposals, seized on the election results as proof that support for traditional public schools in Washington is stronger than ever.

“It’s very clear the voters support investing in our public schools, and they think the existing public schools are doing a good job,” said Rich G. Wood, the spokesman for the Washington Education Association, the state affiliate of the National Education Association.

The Spadys have tried over the past four years to get the legislature to authorize charter schools, and lobbyists for Mr. Allen joined in the effort this year, but to no avail.

If this year’s initiative fails and the logjam in the legislature continues, Mr. Spady plans to organize another statewide ballot drive. But persuading voters who are generally satisfied with the regular public schools to support a little-known alternative has been an uphill battle so far, officials of the pro-charter campaign concede.

“In looking back, we had difficulty persuading people that charter schools wouldn’t hurt the traditional public schools,” David Schaefer, a spokesman for the campaign, said late last week. “We also found people don’t understand what we’re talking about. The charter school is a complicated concept and makes for a difficult message, and we probably didn’t explain it well enough.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2000 edition of Education Week as Prospects for Wash. Charter School Initiative Look Dim

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