Efforts are under way to place an initiative on the Nov. 6 ballot that would ask voters to allow 40 public charter schools around the state in five years. Supporters have until July 6 to gather almost 250,000 signatures. It's a worthwhile effort and a modest proposal, a mere foot in the door in Washington, one of just eight states that do not have charter schools.Before explaining why this is a good idea, we will first point out that this is precisely why the initiative process is important in our state. The Columbian believes the premier function of initiatives is not necessarily to change laws but more effectively to force action after the Legislature has refused to act. A good example is the statewide ban on indoor smoking in public places. After legislators continually neglected this issue, the people took the matter upon themselves. The result was Initiative 901, which passed in 2005 by 63.2 percent of voters statewide (65.6 percent in Clark County).
We'd like to see the same public mandate expressed about charter schools. The concept has reached its time in Washington. Charter schools are much easier than public schools to open or close, and they have shown varying degrees of success around the country. Charter schools are run independent of public school districts. Each is governed by a multiyear performance contract that requires improvements in student performance.
Best-case scenario: A charter school is successful, and two positive pressures are felt: to increase the number of charter schools and to improve the more traditional schools. Worst-case scenario: A charter school doesn't meet performance standards, and by terms of the contract, is relatively quickly closed.
The state teachers union and many Democratic legislators have steadfastly opposed public charter schools. A charter schools bill was filed in the Legislature this year but never made it out of committee. Some lawmakers say the reason is that Washingtonians as a whole do not support the concept. Indeed, voters statewide rejected charter school ballot measures in 1996, 2000 and 2004.
But it's time to give the issue another look. A recent survey by Seattle-based Strategies 360 showed that more than half of 500 likely voters statewide support public charter schools while only 25 percent oppose them. (For skeptics who speculate that the survey might have been conservative-leaning by its nature, the same group of respondents also favored Democrat Barack Obama over Republican Mitt Romney for president 51 percent to 40 percent.)
This year's initiative is being pushed by a coalition that includes the League of Education Voters, Stand for Children and Democrats for Education Reform. Among a few Democrats in the Legislature who agree with the need to try charter schools is state Rep. Eric Pettigrew of Seattle, who has said this year's emerging ballot measure "will finally bring Washington into the 21st century in terms of educational opportunities for public school students."
Chris Korsmo of the League of Education Voters said, "If we didn't think we could win, we wouldn't put it on the ballot." Regarding lingering fears among many people that charter schools will adversely affect public schools, Korsmo said: "If bringing what works elsewhere here is scary for people, the status quo for a lot of kids is a far scarier thing."
Charter schools represent innovative thinking, the same kind of open-mindedness that created magnet schools and other inventive solutions in public education. They're worth a try in a state whose constitution describes basic education as the state's "paramount duty."