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Saturday, October 16, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Charter schools hot topic on ballot
By Linda Shaw
Jeff Petty, a former teacher and education researcher, is pro-John Kerry, pro-choice and very pro public schools.
He considers his desire to start a charter school to be along the same liberal lines. So he is frustrated that many Democrats reject charters as a conservative idea.
"It seems to indicate they haven't really looked into it as much as they might," he says.
It's true that Republicans make up a big chunk of those who want Washington voters next month to approve Referendum 55, which would allow the first charter schools in this state.
Yet to peg the charter-school movement as a conservative cause as opponents often do is to miss part of the picture. When it comes to charters, supporters come from the left, right and center.
A yes vote on the referendum would maintain the law; a no vote would overturn it.
The issue is national as well as local. At stake is whether Washington becomes the 41st state to allow charter schools, joining a movement that has swept the nation in the past 10 years, with more than 3,000 charter schools now in operation.
For some, like Petty, it's about creating new, innovative schools to supplement, not replace, existing schools. Nationally, there are those who support charters as one form of school choice, a broad term that also can include school vouchers, the idea that students could use tax dollars to attend private schools.
The pro-charter camp
In this year's Referendum 55 campaign here, a number of very rich individuals including some from outside the state have pumped major dollars into the pro-charter camp. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and John Walton, a Wal-Mart family heir, donated $1 million each. (Walton lists an address in Arizona.) Don Fisher, co-founder of the Gap clothing chain, came close to that. Eli Broad, a Los Angeles businessman and philanthropist, contributed $200,000, and another $190,000 came from Reed Hastings, a dot-com millionaire from California who is on that state's board of education.
In total so far, charter-school supporters have raised about $3.8 million in cash and in-kind contributions, with 15 contributions of $100,000 or more. Opponents have about $1.2 million, largely from the Washington Education Association ($552,000, counting in-kind contributions) and its parent organization, the National Education Association ($500,000).
"Most folks, on both sides, see this as a make-or-break moment for charter schools in Washington," said Todd Ziebarth, an education consultant in Denver who tracks the charter-school movement.
To supporters, the Washington charter-school law is a modest, careful effort to see if such schools can live up to their promise of providing a superior education in exchange for freedom from many regulations. To opponents, it represents an unproven experiment they fear will lead to the privatization of public education.
In this state, charter-school opponents are largely Democrats, labor organizations and members of what's called Washington's "education family" the teachers union and the professional organizations for school boards and school administrators.
Supporters are the more politically mixed lot.
Left of center, they include young educators like Petty, and minority groups such as Sea Mar Community Health Centers, which specializes in serving Hispanics. They are interested in charters as a new way to reach students who fall behind or are indifferent toward school.
"Lots of us in the minority community are not very happy with the public-school system as it stands now, partly because of the dropout rate," says Rogelio Riojas, executive director of Sea Mar. "We don't want vouchers. We don't want religious schools. We want a public school ... so charter schools are a great alternative for us."
Pat Wasley, dean of the University of Washington's College of Education, supports charters, too. (As an individual, not as a representative of the school.)
But she acknowledges she's in some strange company.
Wasley, for example, supports charters in part because she thinks they'll help ward off school vouchers. But she finds herself allied with Walton, who promotes both charter schools and vouchers.
That's OK with her because, she says, they can agree that parents should have more options.
Local organizers of the pro-charter campaign stress they're anti-voucher, too, and that the charter movement here is about creating another tool in the toolbox of public education.
Steve Mullin, co-chair of the Approve 55 campaign and president of the Washington Roundtable, says he hasn't heard any discussion of vouchers within this state's pro-charter ranks. He points out that the Roundtable opposed a voucher initiative in 1996. It also opposed the first charter initiative.
"We felt the barriers to entry were too low," he said. And, he asks, how can charters be a conservative plot if John Kerry and the national Democratic Party support them? (The Washington State Democrats, however, oppose the Washington law.)
But the presence of at least one pro-voucher contributor in this campaign has raised questions. The board of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, for example, is still weighing what stance to take on the referendum, said President James Kelly, in part because some members worry when they see Walton supporting it.
No one disputes that there are some outstanding charter schools and many good ones in the 40 states that allow them. That's one big reason Wasley supports them. She has seen teachers re-energized by the freedom that a charter school offers, when they'd previously been complacent about their ability to motivate some students.
"We don't know what gains might be made by re-imagining the school system, or re-imagining a school," she said.
A mixed record
But charters haven't all been good, and there have been some fiascoes, like a recent one in California, where 60 charter schools, all run by one organization, closed abruptly before school started, leaving students and teachers scrambling.
In Florida, for-profit groups ended up controlling some charters despite a law prohibiting that, according to Kent Fischer, a former St. Petersburg Times reporter. (The companies set up nonprofit front organizations that were, in name only, running the schools, he said. Washington's law, however, includes language that would prohibit such a tactic.)
The struggles of charter schools in Nevada turned James Welsh, now superintendent of the Shoreline School District, into a critic.
Only one of the six charters in his former Reno-area school district turned out to be as good as the other public schools, he said. Most struggled with financial management, employment policies and student-records issues. He said the district had to spend substantial time trying to help them with such administrative matters, as well as special-education regulations.
Overall, charter schools have a mixed record, better in some states than others. In Michigan, for example, a study by Gary Miron of the Evaluation Center at Western Michigan University found that charters had lower test scores than existing public schools. But in Connecticut, which has fewer charters, the scores were higher.
A fracas erupted over a recent study in which the American Federation of Teachers looked at scores that charter-school students received on the National Assessment of Education Progress.
After The New York Times reported the results that charter-school students score lower than comparable students in regular public schools the pro-charter crowd took out a full-page ad denouncing the study as too limited to draw conclusions from.
Petty says he's sent many a long e-mail defending charter schools to those who question their value. What many people don't see, he says, is that as good as some public schools are, others serve many students poorly.
He's seen promise in a Boston charter school where he once worked, and would like to start a charter high school modeled after a successful one in Rhode Island.
But where Petty sees an opportunity to strengthen public schools, others, like Catherine Ahl, a member of the North Kitsap School Board and the League of Women Voters of Washington, see an effort to end public education as we know it.
Hank Levin, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Columbia University, says the national charter movement includes those who "genuinely see this as a way of freeing up [public schools] and improving them."
But it also includes those "who have an ideological ax to grind, and this is the game in town."
Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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