Wash. Ballot Item No ‘Trigger,’ Backers Say

By Sean Cavanagh — October 08, 2012 2 min read
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When most people hear of a proposal that allows for the creation of charter schools through a “petition signed by a majority of parents,” one thing likely leaps to mind: parent trigger.

Some of the opponents of a Washington state ballot item that would for the first time allow charters schools are pointing to that language and arguing that it would establish a trigger policy in the state, similar to controversial laws on the books in seven states. But backers of initiative 1240—and at least one neutral voice on the matter—say it’s not so.

Parent-trigger laws typically allow schools to be converted to charter schools, closed, or reconstituted in other ways if supporters of those efforts succeed in obtaining a majority of signatures from parents whose children attend the school.

The wording of the Nov. 6 Washington initiative, which has the backing of Bill Gates, Paul Allen, and other wealthy corporate leaders and philanthropists, says that for a regular public school to be converted to a charter school, an applicant to do so must arrange a petition “signed by a majority of teachers assigned to the school, or a petition signed by a majority of parents of students in the school.”

But unlike typical parent-trigger laws, the Washington state initiative is written in way that means that gathering those parent signatures, on its own, would guarantee nothing, notes Josh Cunningham, a policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures, a nonpartisan research organization in Denver. Those seeking to make the conversion would still need the approval of a charter authorizer—which in Washington is a state commission, or a local school board. In true parent-trigger policies, securing the necessary signatures on a petition, on its own, kicks off the process of converting to a charter, Cunningham explained in an interview.

Because of that distinction, Cunningham said, the Washington state language more closely resembles other state laws governing charter conversions than it does a parent-trigger policy.

Critics also worry that the initiative could result in any school—not just an academically struggling one—being converted to a charter. In this regard, the Washington state initiative’s ultimate effect remains unclear.

On the one hand, the language encourages a focus on low-perfoming schools, saying that authorizers “shall give preference to applications for charter schools that are designed to enroll and serve at-risk student populations.”

However, the initiative also says that it is not meant to “limit the establishment of charter schools to those that serve a substantial portion of at-risk students, or to in any manner restrict, limit, or discourage the establishment of charter schools that enroll and serve other pupil populations under a nonexclusive, nondiscriminatory admissions policy.”

Brad Harwood, media relations coordinator for the pro-initiative group Yes on 1240, says the fears that the item will bring a massive shakeup to the state’s schools are overblown. He notes that the initiative allows just 40 charter schools to be created over five years—a number of schools that would serve just a fraction of the student population.

We’ll know which arguments Washington voters found most convincing four weeks from now.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.