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Updated Monday, November 12, 2012 at 10:46 PM

Charter schools narrowly win approval in Washington

By Linda Shaw
Seattle Times education reporter

By a slim margin, Washington voters have approved Initiative 1240, which will allow up to 40 charter schools to open here over the next five years.

The outcome makes Washington the 42nd state in the nation to allow charters, 20 years after Minnesota passed the nation's first charter-school law.

Since then, close to 6,000 charters have opened across the nation.

Supporters declared victory Saturday, saying they look forward to opening high-quality charter schools here. Their lead stood at 50.8 percent Monday, only slightly below the 51.2 percent they had on election night.

Charters won't solve all the state's education problems, "but they are a tool in the toolbox that we've needed," said Lisa Macfarlane, one of the pro-charter campaign's leaders.

Opponents have not conceded, saying they will wait until all votes are counted. To prevail, they would need about 57 percent of the remaining 300,000 votes to go their way. Roughly 90 percent of ballots already have been tallied.

Supporters hope the first charter schools will open as early as next fall, although that might be optimistic. The new state commission that will review and approve charter-school applications doesn't have to be appointed until March 6. The state Board of Education also has until then to decide how it will handle applications from school boards that might want to authorize charters.

The measure also may still face a legal challenge.

Randy Dorn, the elected head of the state's Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, believes that the state Constitution requires all public schools to be under his department's jurisdiction. Charter supporters say they're confident he is wrong, but Dorn has asked the state attorney general's office what his legal options might be.

Some charter-school groups have already expressed interest in coming here, and the superintendent of Spokane Public Schools is interested in having a charter in her district, according to The Spokesman-Review.

Tuesday's election marked the fourth time since 1996 that Washington voters have been asked to approve charters, publicly financed but privately run schools that are supposed to live or die on how well their students perform.

In the past, a majority of voters have sided with charter opponents, who have argued charters haven't proved to be better than other public schools, would drain money from them and leave them with the harder-to-educate kids.

This year, those opponents, who include most of the state's education groups, also argued that Washington should not create a new set of charters when it is under court order to provide more money to its existing public schools.

Opponents had less money than in the past for their campaign, with the state teachers union focusing more attention on the governor's race than on charter schools. Supporters raised more than ever before, mostly from a handful of wealthy individuals, and had a 10:1 financial edge.

Given all that money, opponents have said they are happy the vote was close.

"You would expect that the result would be lopsided," Marianne Bichsel, spokeswoman for People for Our Public Schools, said Friday.

The measure was rejected in King County, but not by as large a margin as when charters were last on the ballot eight years ago. And it picked up support elsewhere, winning in Snohomish and Pierce counties, where it failed last time.

The election results map is a hodgepodge, with no clear east-west or rural-urban patterns.

Ramona Hattendorf, government-relations coordinator for the Washington State PTA, said parents who are heavily involved in education issues were split on the measure.

No one is sure just what tipped the balance this time, but Hattendorf said charter supporters ran a well-financed campaign that consistently stuck with the simple message that charters would provide good opportunities for students who don't have many.

For some, it just felt like time to give charters a try.

Carol Furry, a longtime Seattle teacher who is now semiretired, said she's not sure charters are going to be the answer to helping struggling students, or even part of the answer, but to her, Seattle Public Schools isn't improving fast enough.

Few of her teacher friends agree with her, she said, but "I just want to see some new ideas."

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com



Randy Dorn





Lisa Macfarlane




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