Supporters of an initiative to bring charter schools to Washington say the volume of signatures they turned in to state officials Friday indicates that voters are ready to engage in the charter debate.
Initiative 1240 backers filed more than 350,000 voter signatures with the Secretary of States Office more than 100,000 over the minimum required.
The signatures were gathered in just a few weeks by both volunteer and paid signature-gatherers, initiative backers said. Signature-gathering began after a mid-June court ruling on ballot language.
Shannon Campion, executive director of the Washington chapter of Stand for Children, said the number of signatures signals voter support for charters publicly funded schools that operate with some measure of independence and freedom from state regulations.
Her group is joined by the League of Education Voters and Democrats for Education Reform in supporting the initiative. Washington voters are sharing a sense of many in our coalition that the status quo in public schools is working well for some kids, but is not working well for all kids, said Campion, a Seattle Public Schools parent.
The initiative is backed by more than $2 million in campaign contributions including $1 million from Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, who has backed the charter movement nationwide.
Campion said the number of signatures shows voters believe it is time to talk about this issue again. Three times in the past 16 years, Washington voters have said no to charters. Charter measures also have failed in the Legislature.
Critics such as the Washington Education Association, the states largest teachers union, say charters have a poor track record elsewhere and that they take badly needed money away from the public education system. Fewer than 20 percent of charters nationwide employ teachers who are union members.
Siphoning money away from our existing schools into charter schools robs our existing schools of the money they should receive to educate our students, said WEA President Mary Lindquist. Its spreading an inadequate amount of money across more schools, instead of focusing on how to increase funding to benefit every one of the million students in our schools.
Modern charters started in 1992 in Minnesota. Today, Washington is one of nine states without charter-school laws, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Charters are backed by many in the education-reform movement as a way to boost achievement among low-income and minority students, and as a way to give parents more educational options for their kids.
Charter schools usually control their own budgets, hire and fire their staff members and choose their own curriculum all independently of the school district.
During the federal governments recent Race to the Top grant process, states got extra points for having charter schools.
But opponents say Washington already encourages school innovation and that charter schools arent needed.
Tacoma is a great example of a district with many innovative programs, Lindquist said, pointing to schools such as the School of the Arts, the Science and Math Institute and Lincoln Center. But she said innovation costs money.
A lack of funding is the central problem, she said. If sometimes state rules get in the way of good ideas for kids, then lets change the rules to benefit all our students and not just a few.
The initiative would allow up to 40 charter schools statewide over five years. Schools would be evaluated annually, and after five years, the entire charter system would be evaluated to determine whether more charters should be allowed.
Only nonprofit organizations (but not religious groups) could start charter schools, which would be overseen by either a local school board or a nine-member state charter school commission. The commission would include three representatives appointed by the governor, three by the president of the state Senate and three by the speaker of the state House. No more than five members could come from one political party.
Charter teachers would have to meet the same certification requirements as teachers in traditional schools, and charter schools would have to adhere to state health and safety regulations.