Narrowly winning the Nov. 6 election was just the beginning for Washington states charter school movement that hopes to launch up to 40 independently managed, publicly funded schools over the next five years.
It took 16 years and four trips to the ballot for state voters to say yes to charter schools.
Opening the first schools could prove to be slow going, as well, because a state commission and rules still have to be established, local school boosters have to get organized, and a court challenge may be looming.
Charter proponents say its technically possible but unlikely that a Washington charter school will open its doors next fall.
Members of the coalition that pushed for passage of Initiative 1240 have heard from charter backers throughout the state who would support schools, including some people from Tacoma and Pierce County.
There is a pretty broad geographic spread of people who are interested, said Chris Korsmo, CEO of the Seattle-based League of Education Voters.
Pierce County had the third-highest percentage of Yes votes on I-1240 among all Washington counties. It exceeded the statewide passage rate by 4 full percentage points.
But charter foes warn against reading too much into the Pierce County trend, especially considering many voters in the most populous city rejected the initiative.
Tacoma Public Schools Superintendent Carla Santorno said she isnt afraid of charters. But her hope is that Tacoma wont need them.
The work we are doing with innovative schools, the processes we are putting together I think our innovative schools are a better answer, she said.
In suburban Pierce County, Bethel High School teacher Jim Sawatzki also talks about innovation, but he sees charter schools as a way to spark it.
Sawatzki has been rooting for charters since 1996, the first time Washington voters had a chance to approve them via ballot initiative.
He says his immediate bosses give him plenty of academic freedom in his English and history classes. But like many teachers, he believes the testing mania and the drive to quantify and measure teaching outcomes is sucking the art and soul from the profession.
Charter schools, he believes, would offer the chance to test alternative theories of education.
The bottom line is, you have to break the logjam somehow, Sawatzki said. There needs to be some innovation somewhere to end the moribund one-size-fits-all education. charter approval
Under provisions of I-1240, any nonprofit organization can apply to start a charter school. Approval could come via one of two routes:
• A local school board that has been approved as a charter authorizer by the state Board of Education.
• A newly created state charter commission.
Procedures and timelines governing the approval process must be established. The initiative gives state officials until March 6 to make rules for charter authorizers and to appoint members of the state charter school commission.
But charter schools may face a court battle that could put rule-making and commission appointments on hold.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn, who opposed I-1240, is looking at whether he can challenge the measures legality under the state constitution. The document says that the state superintendent should have supervision over all matters pertaining to public schools.
Dorn contends I-1240 will instead hand jurisdiction for some public charter schools to an appointed commission.
Korsmo said the legal challenge isnt a surprise.
We believe the measure is constitutional, she said. We will be looking at what our legal strategies will be. narrow margin
Charter schools won approval from a razor-thin majority of voters statewide.
As of Friday evening, Initiative 1240 was leading statewide with 50.7 percent approval.
The measure received a majority vote in 18 of Washingtons 39 counties including Pierce County, where 54.8 percent of voters were saying Yes. That was the third-highest percentage among all counties. Only Lewis County, with 54.9 percent favorable, and Mason County, with 56.2 percent, topped it.
Korsmo noted that 11 of the counties where a majority of voters supported I-1240 are in Western Washington, while seven are east of the Cascades.
She said that a lot of different kinds of folks were voting to support it.
But even in counties where the majority said No, the favorable votes were enough to provide a close statewide victory for charters.
In populous King County often a make-or-break county for statewide issues or candidates 48.5 percent of voters supported the initiative.
In Pierce County, precincts voting in favor of the initiative were largely outside Tacoma. The citys precincts were split those in the north and west ends tilted against charters, while a majority of precincts in the south and east leaned in favor. Still, in many precincts, the actual vote count was nearly evenly split.
Tacoma School Board member Karen Vialle said those kinds of numbers dont add up to a ringing endorsement. During the campaign, she joined others on the Tacoma board in taking a position against the initiative.
Like Dorn, she believes there are constitutional questions about the initiative.
Vialle also said Tacoma is working hard to improve every school and that she doesnt want charter schools to become a distraction.
If the measure survives legal scrutiny, Vialle said she hopes members of the I-1240 coalition will reach out to include school districts around the state.
We have got to come together to make this thing work, she said. We are all supposed to be educating kids. We dont want to get into a battle where kids get hurt.
Santorno saw charter schools in action during her time as an administrator with Denver Public Schools, where she spent much of her career.
We had some charters doing very well, that were easy to support, she said. Others had trouble with financial management or trouble with student achievement.
The Denver school system dedicated a full-time employee to screen charter applications and maintain oversight of the schools. Several others had charters as part of their responsibility, Santorno said.
It took time and resources, she added.
Santorno said one high-poverty Denver school that failed to make progress was taken over by the state. The state handed the school to the Knowledge Is Power Program, a well-known network that operates 125 charters around the country.
KIPP took it, and two years later, gave it back, Santorno said.
She said the Tacoma district already has innovative schools and is open to working with teacher, community or parent groups that want to try something new. She said, for example, that the district has begun conversations with parents in Fircrest about possible alternatives for middle school education.
We are doing things differently, Santorno said. We are measuring our progress. We are making it public.
Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635