Washington State: Charter Question is on November Ballot

Supporters of charter schools in the state of Washington have gathered around 350,000 signatures for Initiative 1240 — which would allow charter schools to open in the state — significantly exceeding the 241,153 signatures it required by July 6 to put the Initiative on the November ballot.

The rapid accumulation of signatures was made possible by nearly $2 million in donations from supporters which allowed paid signatures workers to be hired alongside volunteers. Bill Gates was the largest donor with a $1 million contribution. Mike and Jackie Bezos contributed $450,000, while Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen donated $100,000.

This will be the fourth time that the charter schools question has been put to the voters, who rejected it in 1996, 2000 and 2004. This year, however, the political landscape has shifted in favor of charter schools across the nation, with 41 states now allowing them.

"The fact that so many voters across the state stepped forward and signed our petitions in record time clearly shows that Washingtonians want another opportunity to vote on allowing public charter schools in our state," said Shannon Campion, executive director of the Washington chapter of Stand for Children, one of the groups supporting the initiative.

Initiative 1240 would create 40 charter schools over a five year period. These independent public schools would be free from many regulations that hinder the freedom of regular public schools. In Washington, only nonprofit organizations would be granted approval by the state to run the schools and students will be selected by lottery.

"A lot of people — parents, teachers, a lot of us — share the frustration that the status quo is working for some kids but not for enough," said Campion, executive director of the Washington chapter of Stand for Children, one of several education advocacy groups supporting the initiative. "I think Washington voters share that sense."

The Legislature did debate charter schools this year but there were concerns about non-union employees and fear that charters would divert money from traditional schools that were already struggling to balance their budgets.

"We're going to be outspent 10- or-12-to-one," Lindquist predicted. She added, however, that the teacher's union has the strength of its members advocating for education in every community across the state.

Whether more dollars from the National Education Association, the WEA's parent organization, will come to Washington to help with this fight has not been determined, Lindquist said.

With the battle against charters having been largely lost across the US, it remains unclear whether the NEA will be particularly keen to fight in Washington. There is a growing sense among leadership that the NEA should pick its battles in the future. Declining membership and a series of lost political battles has seen the power and influence of the NEA dwindle, while reduced dues also mean that the NEA has to be more budget-careful than ever before.

Washington will not allow religious charters. Teachers at the charter schools will still have to be certified, although the schools will not be required to hire union teachers.

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