Washington State Will Vote on Charters – for the Fourth Time

It hardly seems to matter to the tenor of the debate that this is the fourth time Washington State voters will get to decide the issue of charter schools. Going on the ballot this November, Initiative 1240 would allow a limited number of charters to operate in the state, and as much as supporters are trying to paint this version of the plan as a radical departure from the other three attempts, Brian M. Rosenthal of The Seattle Times writes that the changes are negligible.

What isn’t negligible is the emotions that the proposal seems to stir in people on both sides of this issue.

The first time supporters passed on charters in the state, the idea wasn’t familiar to many voters. Many treated the concept of independently-operated and publicly funded schools as foreign and strange. That was more than a decade ago before phrases like “education reform” and “school choice” became common clarion calls of advocates looking to completely overhaul the way the school system operates not just in Washington, but nationwide.

The general sentiment about regular public schools, meanwhile, is that many are still not doing enough to educate all students. At the same time, though, a recent state Supreme Court decision has shifted much of the discussion about public education here away from changing it to increasing its funding.

Those in favor of 1240 have spent nearly $3 million to get the measure on the ballot, drawing on the traditional supporters of the school choice movement for both financial and logistical support. Opposition to the initiative has coalesced along familiar lines as well, as opponents have harnessed the influence of teachers unions and naming a popular education blogger Melissa Westbrook to lead the effort against the measure.

Those who are pushing for the passage of 1240 believe that charter schools could be the solution to the chronically underperforming public school system that is too hidebound in bureaucracy to really be accountable to itself or to its students and their families. On the other hand, those who oppose charters point to the fact that study after study found their performance inconsistent, and say that the close ties between business interests and the school choice movement shows that charters are just an attempt by profit-seekers to cash in on the country’s education system.

Those pushing this year’s measure emphasize that it’s not a replica of the previous versions, saying it calls for more accountability and oversight than ever before.

They point to the fact that Initiative 1240 would create a nine-member charter-school commission to judge applications from organizations seeking to start a charter school.

Traditional school districts would be able to approve and oversee charters only if they themselves apply to the state for that authority.

“This is a high level of accountability and oversight, and that’s really important,” said Shannon Campion, an initiative spokeswoman. “And it wasn’t in the 2004 law.”