School Choice & Charters

Washington Ballot Measure Defies the Traditional Map

By Sean Cavanagh — November 20, 2012 2 min read

Judging from recent election results, including the outcome of the 2012 campaign, the state of Washington has a divided political character that mirrors much of the rest of the country. That is, the state’s more populated urban areas—which, in Washington, means its western counties, including the Seattle area—tend to lean Democratic, or fall into the battleground category, while its more rural areas—much of central and eastern Washington—are solidly Republican.

But when voters narrowly approved a ballot measure on Nov. 6 to allow the state’s first charter schools, those traditional partisan, geographic splits fell away a bit.

True, several counties in western Washington backed the item, Initiative 1240. But a majority of voters in the state’s most populated county, liberal King County (home to Seattle), did not.

And a pretty big group of counties in rural, central Washington, meanwhile, supported it. In one sense that’s a bit curious, particularly given that charters are primarily an urban phenomenon.

First, here’s the county-by-county breakdown of the presidential race, in which President Barack Obama beat GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney pretty handily in the state. The map looks similar for the results of this year’s governor’s race, in which Democrat Jay Inslee narrowly defeated Republican Rob McKenna, and the pattern was roughly the same in 2008 and 2004 presidential races.

Now contrast those results with the tallies for the charter measure:

I would imagine that union opposition to the charter schools measure was a factor in the King County results, as well as overall skepticism among some liberals about charters. But why did rural voters back the charter measure? General enthusiasm for the charter school concept?

Students of Washington state politics, send me your thoughts.

UPDATE: Lisa Macfarlane, Washington state director for Democrats for Education Reform, which backed the ballot item, cited several factors in the measure’s success in rural communities. Some of those counties have significant numbers of academically struggling schools, and parents in those areas want a fuller menu of choices for improving education, including charter schools, she said. Macfarlane noted that her organization set up field offices with campaign staff and volunteers in rural communities to win the public over.

“We didn’t write anybody off,” Macfarlane said.

Macfarlane acknowledged that support in King County was not as strong, though she also believed the measure drew bipartisan support there and around the state. “We would not have won this if it was just a Republican measure,” she said.

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