OLYMPIA — Supporters of charter schools in Washington presented petitions to the secretary of state Friday morning, trying once again to qualify for the ballot.
In less than three weeks, paid and volunteer signature gatherers said they collected more than 350,000 Washington voter signatures, which if validated would be more than enough to secure a place on the November ballot for Initiative 1240. If voters approve it, the initiative will establish up to 40 public charter schools in the state.
This would be the fourth time the issue has made the ballot — and though it has never passed, supporters hope voters will make Washington the 42nd state to authorize charter schools.
Charter schools are publicly funded, privately run schools established by qualified nonprofit organizations on a contract basis. If students at a charter school do not meet required performance standards, the school can be shut down. The schools are free and open to all students, and students are chosen by lottery if the school is unable to accommodate all applicants.
Rep. Eric Pettigrew, D-Seattle, is a member of the Yes on 1240 coalition. He said supporters of charter schools have used past defeats to write the best law possible, focusing on flexibility and high standards for success.
It is likely that many charter schools will be established in urban areas to help the most at-risk students, Pettigrew said.
“We’re trying to establish schools where students need it most,” he said.
Though many Democrats side with the Washington Education Association (WEA) in opposing the initiative, Pettigrew said he’s simply listening to his constituents.
“(Families say) ‘We need something different; we need some way our kids have a chance,'” he said. “That’s what I’m responding to.”
Yes on 1240 has raised more than $2.2 million thus far. The smallest contribution amount is $25,000. Big donors include Microsoft founders Bill Gates (who put $1 million toward the effort) and Paul Allen, and Jackie and Mike Bezos, parents of Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos.
WEA spokesman Rich Wood said it’s unfortunate when the initiative process is overtaken by interests of wealthy individuals and corporations. He used I-1183 as an example.
“Washington voters deserve to know who’s behind this,” he said.
Wood said while the initiative’s wealthy backers likely have good intentions, they aren’t educators and don’t know what’s best for Washington students.
He said the initiative, if approved, would take money away from existing public schools. This is especially troubling in light of the recent state Supreme Court ruling that the state is not providing adequate funding for public schools, he said.
“It makes no sense to create this new system of charter schools when we can’t pay for our existing schools,” he said.
However, Shannon Campion, executive director of the Washington chapter of the advocacy group Stand for Children, said because the state provides funding to schools on a per-student basis, this funding would still follow children who attend public charter schools. Campion said the focus should not be on money, but on the quality of basic education.
“Not enough kids are getting the strong public education they deserve today,” she said.
Campion said the creation of charter schools will help students receive a better education.
Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, co-sponsored a bill introduced in January that would have created a limited number of charter schools. The bill died, but King still supports the establishment of charter schools.
Though he doesn’t think they are the sole solution for Washington’s education problems, he said the contract schools are a good tool for improving education.
“We can’t just keep doing what we’re doing and expect a different result,” he said.
Though opponents of charter schools say the creation of a new system will take funding away from the current system, King said that doesn’t matter.
“As long as you’re educating the children of Washington, and being successful, why wouldn’t you want to do that?” he asked. “Teachers don’t support it just because they’re union.”